How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

17
30 Days

Social Engagement

GEOFFREY BAYM AND COLBY GOTTERT

Abstract: While we often think of reality television as exploitative or sensational,
this essay explores a reality show with an explicit agenda of social engagement and
education: 30 Days. By looking at the show’s ties to documentary and reality televi-
sion traditions as analyzed in an episode personifying the illegal immigration de-
bate, we can see the possibilities and limitations of socially activist programming
within a commercial television system.

In 2004, Morgan Spurlock’s film SuperSize Me achieved a rare combination for a documentary film: commercial success and sociopolitical influence. The film became the fourth-highest grossing feature documentary ever at the time, earning over $10.5 million in ticket sales.1 At the same time, it drew attention to the potential public health problems of fast-food consumption, and undoubtedly played a role in McDonald’s subsequent decision to discontinue the “supersize” option from its menus.2 Two years later, Spurlock would try to recreate on television what he had achieved with film, launching the reality TV show 30 Days (FX, 2005–2008), through which he hoped to replicate both the commercial success and sociopolitical impact of SuperSize Me. Borrowing its operating concept from the film, each episode of the show would feature a person forced to confront different lifestyles or political attitudes for thirty days in order to educate the audience about an issue of public significance and perhaps transform their (and the featured character’s) attitudes about that issue.

Using the form of reality TV to explore storylines intervening in social politics, 30 Days differed from the majority of its genre, which borrows techniques from documentary film but generally privileges melodramatic narrative or staged competition over civic education and political engagement. While many critics consider reality TV a degradation of documentary form and intent, 30 Days sought to harness the entertaining appeal of melodrama as a means of offering factual

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