A big fan of Super-Size Me, I eagerly tuned into the debut of Morgan Spurlock’s new hourlong documentary show 30 Days when it premiered on FX last week. The premise is, á la Super-Size, that Morgan will document 30 days of somethin—minimum wage work, exercise, etc.—for the good of…the good.
In the first installment, Spurlock and his partner move to Columbis, Ohio, and secure minimum wage work. His girlfriend gets a dishwashing job at a cafe while Spurlock takes up odd construction, landscaping, and restaurant work. They move into a bug-infested apartment with basically just the clothes on their back—and no heat until they have enough dough to start the service.
Their 30 days documents the financial hardships of the minimum wage earner and makes a strong argument for a federal wage increase, yes. Spurlock and his partner scrimp and save as much as they can but are knocked out by back-to-back emergency room visits (his for work-related wrist injury; hers for a nasty UTI). For his partner’s 30th birthday, they must choose between a $20 meal out (which goes overbudget) or a visit to the local conservatory (adult ticket price: $6).
Spurlock repeatedly asks the camera during his “confessional” moments: How do people live like this?
I respect Spurlock and I respect what he’s doing, but I was also a little outraged by this episode. Spurlock and his partner, despite their “immersion” in the culture of poverty, are still just tourists there. Any minimum wage earner in our country doesn’t have the luxury of asking how people live that way—because they’re too busy living that way. Throughout the episode, Spurlock provides a brief history of the minimum wage and its current status—that there’s been no increase since (I believe) 1997. It’s horrific to be one of America’s working poor, but it’s sort of irresponsible to live above the poverty line and profess to understand what it’s like after just 30 days.
It’s a complication that speaks to my relationship with poetries of witness. Witness is such a difficult thing to communicate because it can easily encroach on violence. For example, Spurlock is attempting to provide a witness of an experience that isn’t entirely his. I don’t know where to draw the line in terms of witness, either. It can be a slippery slope. But I think recognizing the difficulty of witness is a good start on the path to keeping it “honest,” if that’s even possible.