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A few more ideas to digest

Moving the momentum of his 'Super Size Me' success to the small screen, documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock again strikes out against complacency and convention.

June 12, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

MORGAN SPURLOCK insists he isn't trying to super-size journalism or advocate from a super-sized soapbox. He says he's not interested in becoming an obnoxious gadfly or the next Michael Moore.

But a year after Spurlock super-sized his way to an Oscar nomination and book deal ("Don't Eat This Book" was just released by G.P. Putnam's Sons) by devouring McDonald's fare three times a day for 30 days, the director, star and writer of "Super Size Me" is taking on the small screen, he says, to "pluck people out of their own backyards, send them out into the unknown and hopefully change some minds along the way."

"30 Days," a documentary-style reality show that premieres Wednesday on FX, follows along for a month as Americans trade in their lives for ones radically different from their own.

Spurlock and his fiancee, Alex Jamieson, swap their Manhattan lifestyle for a stint in Columbus, Ohio, where they both work minimum-wage jobs; Scott Bridges, a Los Angeles husband and father, undergoes an anti-aging regime that includes taking steroids because he wants to look like he did in high school; David Stacy, a Christian family man from West Virginia moves in with a Muslim family in Dearborn, Mich.; Michiel Nacke of Tempe, Ariz., binge drinks to teach her children about the dangers of alcohol; Ryan Hickmott of Oxford, Mich., moves in with a gay man in San Francisco to deal with his homophobia; and Johari Jenkins of Jersey City, N.J., and Vito Summa of New York City live without electricity and modern conveniences in an eco-village in rural Missouri.

"I have a whole laundry list of things that I think need to be fixed in America, or at least examined so that people can start to think about them," said the 34-year-old Spurlock, who hosts and narrates the series. "I've had so many people come up to me and say that after watching 'Super Size Me,' they've changed the way they are eating. Parents are cooking more for their kids, school systems are voting all of their junk food out of their cafeterias, and you see how it has empowered people. Hopefully, this show will do the same thing: to make people say, 'I need to think more about that' or 'I need to become more active in my community' or 'I need not to be so judgmental off the bat.' "

FX's signature dramas -- "The Shield," "Nip/Tuck" and "Rescue Me" -- examine the price of justice, the national obsession with youth, and life after Sept. 11, respectively, albeit through a fictional prism. So it fits that the network is fashioning its reality offerings with the same strategy, said John Landgraf, president and general manager of FX Networks. Indeed, "30 Days" moves the basic cable network past the contrived shenanigans of last year's "Todd TV" into the experiential storytelling that turned "Super Size Me" into the third-highest-grossing box office documentary in history.

"The reality business in general seems to us to be a little cheesy, hyped-up," Landgraf said. "For me, to find the unscripted equivalent of our scripted brand, it had to aspire to be high-end from a filmmaking and storytelling standpoint. And we wanted to go after something that feels more real and deals with contemporary American themes and issues."


Striking a chord

The idea for "30 Days" struck Spurlock as he was editing "Super Size Me" and thought about the debate his McDonald's-based documentary had sparked just at the test screenings.

"People started arguing with one another and I thought, 'This is fantastic -- to evoke emotion like that,' " Spurlock said. "That's what good films do; good films really make you feel. So we were sitting in the edit room and I thought it would be great to create a show for television where we can deal with serious issues in a fun way that isn't preachy."

Spurlock pitched the documentary-style reality show in February 2004 to FX executives who immediately went for the concept. They helped Spurlock narrow his "huge list" of topics to a half-dozen to produce this year and bought six episodes.

"I love that FX jumped on it because we're taking reality television back to its roots: documentary films," Spurlock said. "Nobody wins, nobody gets voted off, and we're dealing with real issues in our society every day."

Executing the concept, however, became a challenge. "30 Days" isn't serialized like most reality shows. Each episode plays out like a short film, with Spurlock as its engaging common denominator. Spurlock and his production team -- R.J. Cutler of the Oscar-nominated "The War Room" and Ben Silverman and H.T. Owens of "The Biggest Loser" and "Blow Out" -- studied the structure of "Super Size Me" to see how they could best emulate it for television.

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