Reality TV doesn't have to be trashy. But it helps if it's tangy.
Take the FX network's new six-part series, "30 Days," which debuts tonight at 10. Helmed by Morgan Spurlock, the creator of last year's hit documentary "Super Size Me," the show is based on that film's total-immersion gimmick: In each episode, an individual spends 30 days devoted, 24/7, to some fish-out-of-water experiment. A devout Christian, for example, goes to live with a Muslim family; a worried suburban mom tries to scare her party-loving daughter by becoming a binge drinker; or, in tonight's premiere, Spurlock and his fiancee, Alexandra Jamieson (a vegan chef who also appeared in "Super Size Me"), spend the month working and living off of minimum-wage jobs.
His goal, Spurlock says, is to explore America's issues and "hopefully change some minds along the way."
But here's the danger in mixing reality TV and a dollop too much didacticism: You run the risk of being just a tad dull.
Surprisingly, considering "Super Size Me" won a reputation for wit and creativity, the Spurlock-centered episode (tonight) is the weakest of the first three. Predictability is partly to blame: author Barbara Ehrenreich tilled the same soil -- with much more freshness -- in 2001's best-selling "Nickel and Dimed." (The ground covered is so similar, in fact, that Spurlock probably owes her royalties.)
Anyone who's actually lived a less-than-middle-class existence will get a bitter little snicker out of Spurlock's travails. At the grocery store, he and Jamieson realize they don't have enough money to buy everything they'd like -- and so, almost tearfully, they return one of their oversize jugs of bottled water. Public transportation is another hardship. Sometimes . . . the bus takes a long time to come! Schedules change! And it takes them a long time to get anywhere! "I'm standing here like an idiot in the cold," Jamieson complains.
The series is most engaging when it stops hammering points home and indulges in the can't-help-it pettiness and whimsical unpredictability that help make reality TV so engaging. In an episode titled "Anti-Aging," an ex-jock tries to get back into shape by taking a dizzying array of vitamins, human-growth hormone injections and testosterone. All of which -- shocker! -- turn out to be a bad idea. But, amusingly, the quackery seems to bother his wife much less than all the time he's spending with his hot personal trainer, Heather.
Times like these, the program seems to breathe -- and make its arguments more naturally. At the end of the episode that bangs away at the fact that Muslims are people, too, the wife of the host couple drops six words that do all the work by themselves.
Her husband, a doctor who's weathered his well-meaning but bumbling guest with sometimes barely hidden incredulity, thinks he sees an obscene hand gesture being made down the hall.
"Did he just flip me off?" he asks his wife, who is standing next to him in a hijab.
"No, he went like this," she says, making a V with her fingers. "It was a peace sign, dude."
30 Days (one hour) airs at 10 tonight on FX.