He Made Reality Easier To Swallow

Whenever I get an alert about the untimely passing of someone these days, it makes me stop dead (ironically?) in my tracks.  I’m arguably at an age and state of life where I often get survivor’s remorse, and no matter how bad things may get for me on many a day–and lately, there’s been more than a few lousy ones in the mix–at least I was still around to read an alert that wasn’t about me.

In the case of this one that dropped yesterday, it happened to be about someone who had more of an impact on my life both during the time I knew him and long after I did.

The NEW YORK TIMES’Clay Risen and 

Morgan Spurlock, a documentary filmmaker who gained fame with his Oscar-nominated 2004 film “Super Size Me,” which followed him as he ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days… died on Thursday in New York City. He was 53.  His brother Craig Spurlock said the cause was complications of cancer.

20 years ago, Morgan Spurlock was a truly hot commodity, as Risen and Tumin recalled:

Mr. Spurlock was a playwright and television producer when he rocketed to global attention with “Super Size Me,” an early entry into the genre of gonzo participatory filmmaking that borrowed heavily from the confrontational style of Michael Moore and the up-close-and-personal influences of reality TV, which was then just emerging as a genre.

The film’s approach was straightforward: Mr. Spurlock would eat nothing but McDonald’s food for a month, and if a server at the restaurant offered to “supersize” the meal — that is, to give him the largest portion available for each item — he would accept.

The movie then follows Mr. Spurlock and his ever-patient girlfriend through his 30-day odyssey, splicing in interviews with health experts and visits to his increasingly disturbed physician. At the end of the month, he was 25 pounds heavier, depressed, puffy-faced and experiencing liver dysfunction.

Which was pretty much how one could describe the state of FX’s unscripted business at the point when my colleagues and I first crossed paths with him.  What is often forgotten–thankfully–by those who sing the praises of FX then and now as a haven for scripted TV brilliance is that the fiscal realities of FOX have consistently priortized lower-cost, unscripted TV.  And despite the amount of awards of accolade being showered on the network as THE SHIELD, NIP/TUCK and RESCUE ME became transformational success stories, the unyielding beancounters, especially those who showered praise on corporate cousin Mike Darnell’s even more prolific array of exploitative, promotable reality shows, as well as the marketers who demanded more than one or two hours of quality original content to attract advertisers and affiliates, mandated that the cost of doing business be brought down with an array of similarly efficient programming.

Except what FX had was the video equivalent of a Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a upsized side of french fries.  VARIETY’s Denise Martin tried to put a positive a spin on some of it when the block launched in June 2003:

Reality was never something we wanted to abandon completely,” veep of development Matt Cherniss said. “But there’s so much of it out right now, FX felt like it needed a cohesive strategy to help better define our brand.”

“Friday Night Fix” will be anchored by six different unscripted skeins set to roll for 17 weeks starting Aug. 1. First batch of shows to bow include the following:

  • The gameshow “Driveshaft,” which will see two contestants transform their clunkers into racing machines to compete for ownership of the newly made-over vehicle. Tho(m) Beers (“Monster Garage”) will exec produce in association with Fox TV Studios.
  • A sendup of home makeover shows, “Trash to Cash With John DiResta” will take individuals with little money and use actual garbage to spruce up their homes. DiResta and Hallock & Healey (“Scare Tactics”) will co-exec produce.

And then the so-called “signature” show deemed worthy enough to launch on a separate night, one that THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER found even fewer positive words for in January 2004:

It’s difficult to say which aspect of FX’s “Todd TV” is most annoying. Is it the fact that it’s essentially just an elaborate weekly infomercial for T-Mobile cellular (described in press material as the show’s “Official Wireless Carrier”)? Or could it be that the star of this quasi-reality mess — slacker extraordinaire Todd Santos — is so inherently unlikable?

Either way, anyone who commits to spending an hour of his or her life during the next six weeks with this contrived cacophony of cluelessness could suffer from many of the same inertia issues as the featured player. It may not quite be the end of civilization as we know it, but we can surely see it from here.

The next time you run into PRICE IS RIGHT announcer George Gray, ask him about his time serving as the host of that show.  Be ready to be admonished for bringing it up.

So yep, FX’s ROI play was in as serious need of a change in diet as Spurlock was.  But what both parties figured out  is if Spurlock could immerse himself in the world of a fast-food addict for 30 days and survive, what else could be done for 30 days that might be interesting, provocative or at least watchable?

So several years after he first came onto the video scene with his little-remembered shortform series I BET YOU WILL, Spurlock and FX teamed up for a series of similar docu-reality shows called 30 DAYS, described thusly per Wikipedia:

In each episode, Spurlock, or some other person or group of people, spend 30 days immersing themselves in a particular lifestyle with which they are unfamiliar (e.g. working for minimum wage, being in prison, a Christian living as a Muslim, etc.), while discussing related social issues. As in Spurlock’s film, Super Size Me, there are a number of rules unique to each situation which must be followed during each such experiment. At least one episode each season has featured Spurlock as the person spending the month in the particular lifestyle.

30 Days premiered on June 15, 2005, with the pilot episode “Minimum Wage,” in which Morgan Spurlock and his then fiancée, Alex Jamieson, lived for 30 days in the Bottoms neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, trying to get by on minimum wage ($5.15 an hour). They had no access to prior cash, credit cards or health insurance and lived in an apartment whose rent was less than their combined wages for one week.

Rules:

  1. They have to work minimum-wage jobs.
  2. They must start off with only $206 (slightly less than one week’s minimum wage pay).
  3. They must secure all their credit cards and other money, and are not allowed to access any savings accounts.

I tested that episode in several locations, including Columbus, and had Mr. Spurlock as a remarkably calm and intrigued backroom observer for a couple of them.  Rarely have I interacted with talent as invested in our process, and even when audiences were less positive about what they saw he was even-tempered, introspective and open.  He even was willing to discuss the process with many of my peers as a keynote speaker at a research conference, and urged those who worked for entities specializing in unscripted TV to urge their creatives to heed his advice and listen to their audiences as keenly as he did.  And yes, we shared a couple of meals along the way, none of them involving Mickey D’s.

30 DAYS was never as huge a ratings-getter as were the scripted shows, though they did improve upon the time slots they generally inherited.  And as Wikipedia adds, it was favorably received:

 The series received 4 wins and 4 nominations1Notably, it won the Television Academy Honors and received recognition from the GLAAD Media Awards and the Online Film & Television Association2. Overall, “30 Days” provided thought-provoking insights into diverse lifestyles and cultural clashes, making it a memorable and impactful show.

Spurlock and FX, and I, all parted ways not long after that the show’s end, but as my personal life evolved into one where for a variety of lame reasons more and more of my own diet became McDonald’s meals I would continue to think about Spurlock’s film.  But the person who demanded that regimen fell more into the category of those who proved to undermine a good deal of the film’s intended impact, as Risen and Tumin also recalled:

(T)he film also came in for subsequent criticism. Some people pointed out that Mr. Spurlock refused to release the daily logs tracking his food intake. Health researchers were unable to replicate his results in controlled studies.  

And in 2017, he admitted that he had not been sober for more than a week at a time in 30 years — meaning that, in addition to his “McDonald’s only” diet, he was drinking, a fact that he concealed from his doctors and the audience, and that most likely skewed his results.

So I guess we both had skeletons in our respective closets.

And when I finally reached a point in my life when I had literally no choice to turn it around, when I removed myself from the situation that resulted in my own mini-version of Super Size Me, I thought of reaching out to Spurlock to thank him for at least planting the long-dormant seed that life-changing people were finally able to sow.

As it turned out, Spurlock was dealing with some pretty lousy things at the time, as PEOPLE’s Tommy McArdle reported yesterday:

Morgan Spurlock had recently finalized a divorce with producer Sara Bernstein in the months before his death at 53.  Spurlock shared son Kallen, 8, with Bernstein, whom he married in 2016. Their divorce filing came in March 2021. 

Randi Karmel, an attorney who represented Spurlock in his divorce, said in a statement Friday: “The parties amicably settled all outstanding issues between them prior to his death. My thoughts are with Morgan’s family at this very difficult time.”

Karmel added, “It’s heartbreaking news. I know Morgan as a wonderful person to work for, very appreciative of his family, and devoted to the health and well-being of his children, in addition to being a great filmmaker.”

And even before that, as the TIMES duo further recounted, Spurlock was dealing with even more personal cleansing that he confessed at the same time he told of how his diet was augmented by alcohol:

(H)e also revealed multiple incidents of sexual misconduct, including an encounter in college that he described as rape, as well as repeated infidelity and the sexual harassment of an assistant at his production company, Warrior Poets.  The statement, which Mr. Spurlock posted on Twitter in 2017, came as he was gearing up for the release of a sequel to the film, “Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!” on YouTube Red.  He stepped down from his production company, and YouTube dropped the film; it was instead released in 2019 by Samuel Goldwyn Films. 

His decision to discuss his sexual past, which came at the height of the #Metoo movement, was met with a mix of praise and criticism. Though many people lauded him for coming forward, critics suggested that he was trying to get ahead of a story that was going to emerge anyway.

All agreed, though, that the decision came with consequences: “Career death,” The Washington Post declared it in 2022, noting that the once-ubiquitous Mr. Spurlock had largely disappeared.

Far be it for me to think someone as inconsequential as I could have truly helped him.  But I certainly could relate.  And honestly, I could have used a friend with the ability to be as introspective and self-effacing as he.  And it sounds like he could have used a little bit more praise.

So I guess we’ll just have to settle for the posthumous and pious hope that somewhere, somehow, he’ll know how much he helped me and my employer at times when we really needed radical overhaul.

As righteous dudes go, you were as super sized as they come, Mr. Spurlock.

Until next time…

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