Critics of Morgan Spurlock‘s slightly sneaky, Hawthorne Effect-ed style of documentary accuse him of being, at best, too cute by half, and at worst manipulative. They may have a point (more kids recognize that picture of Ronald McDonald than that picture of Jesus, but does everyone think of Jesus the same way?), but when his style works, he produces some incredibly moving, thought-provoking stuff, as he did in earlier seasons of his show on the FX network, 30 Days. In putting people (sometimes Spurlock himself) in settings opposite to their own experiences, what 30 Days does really well is to expose us to people we might otherwise misunderstand, misinterpret, or even dismiss.
The season premiere, which places West Virginia native Spurlock in a coal mine, has some of the overly cutesy touches typical of his work, including animated sequences presenting us with the “shocking” facts about how much of the United States’ energy use is fueled by coal. Spurlock’s fear and exhaustion down in the mine, however, cut through any treacle and (under)ground the show in a kind of reality that’s almost too real. Where the show really shines, however, is when Spurlock takes the camera off himself and points it at the workers who don’t get to leave in a month, including a 28-year-old miner worried about the environmental impact of his job, miners’ wives who admit they wonder every day if they’ll see their husbands again, and his host’s brother, a man who has to take an oxygen canister wherever he goes but says he’d work in the mines again if he had the chance. The scene where Spurlock convinces his host, Dale, a 35-year veteran of the mines, to go for a black lung test with him is more suspenseful than most things network dramas put out this year. And I have to admit to being surprised when a pocketknife made me cry. So much of “reality” TV today is meant to make us exclaim, “Celebrities–they’re just like meeee!”, but 30 Days is about making us say, “Coal miners in Appalachia/Muslims/convicts–they’re just like me,” and that’s worth a whole lot more.
The coal mining episode is being repeated tonight and Sunday on FX; future episodes, which have their original airings Tuesday nights on FX, include a former NFL player using a wheelchair for a month and a gun-control advocate working at a firearms store. I’m just hoping for a follow-up on Dale, please–that’s real enough for me.