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'30 Days': reality with bite

''30 Days" wants to be the yin to the moral yang that is Paris Hilton's ''The Simple Life." It's a pin in the bubble that surrounds the iconic heir-head as she turns America into her own personal spittoon. Created and hosted by Morgan Spurlock, who scored on the big screen with ''Super Size Me," the new FX series is a passionate defense of the people who suffer from the very inequalities Hilton finds distasteful. Poverty, racism, corporate exploitation -- they're all on Spurlock's hit list in his six-week show, which premieres tonight at 10. They're his new Big Macs.

Spurlock, 34, is an interesting figure, and an unexpected guide through social divides. He's all easy biker affect, with his droopy handlebar mustache and his sly grin, and he exudes blue-collar self-acceptance. He's not an analytical type in a suit and a haircut, yet another Stone Phillips; he's just a dude with a receding hairline and a camera. But then Spurlock is also distant enough from underprivileged America to be shocked that people actually have to maintain budgets to get by. Waiting for a bus at 5:30 a.m. on tonight's show, he notes, ''People do it every day. It's something I never thought about." He's both regular and detached enough to be outraged.

The show is Spurlock's attempt to bring his ''Super Size Me" franchise to the small screen without letting it look too much like reality TV. In the Oscar-nominated movie, he spent 30 days eating nothing but McDonald's to show how fast food is eroding the health of America. On each episode of the series, he similarly throws an ordinary person into a life experiment that will challenge his body and his soul for 30 days.

Next week, a schleppy 34-year-old salesman named Scott submits to the anti-aging industry with a series of testosterone injections, hormones, and supplements. Of course, Scott's body gradually rebels. And in two weeks, a devout Christian named David spends a month living in a Muslim community in Michigan, with much 9/11 debate in the forefront.

Certainly, the show features the same reality contrivances and manufactured drama that define the likes of ''The Biggest Loser," ''Made," and ''Amish in the City." But Spurlock comes off more like a documentarian than a reality host, in an indie art-house kind of way. Rather than taking the reality-TV bullfight approach, he tries to highlight the more liberal-identified criticisms of America and prove them by using people as guinea pigs. He wants his series to be about life lessons, not exploitation. He doesn't have the hard-hitting manner of a Michael Moore; he's too mellow-yellow for that. But he is certainly out to cast vivid doubt on the way this country works.

Tonight, Spurlock himself is the subject of the hour, as he goes after the inadequacies of minimum wage. For a month, he and his fiancee, Alex Jamieson, who also appears in ''Super Size Me," try to live on next to nothing in Columbus, Ohio. He works at multiple jobs and she is employed in a café kitchen. Naturally, it's not an easy existence, particularly when health issues rear their heads in the form of a wrist injury and a urinary tract infection. Hospital bills accumulate, rent is due, food is scarce. And psychologically, they're blown away by the hardships -- the ants in their apartment, which is above a former crack den, and the lack of time they have to work on their relationship.

There's something obvious about it all, since you know minutes into the episode exactly what Spurlock is attempting to reveal. Yes, if he and Alex had insurance they'd be healthier. ''If I stopped eating," Spurlock notes ironically, ''I could save so much money." And of course, we know that Morgan and Alex are only in dire straits for a month, after which their woes will magically disappear. But then even if the truths he's trying to illustrate are self-evident, they do benefit from the retelling.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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