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Published: Wednesday, 7/26/2006

FX documentary series challenges long-cherished beliefs

BY MIKE KELLY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE
Frank George, front, stands with Rigoberto Gonzalez, back right, and members of his family , whom he comes to know over the course of a month. Frank George, front, stands with Rigoberto Gonzalez, back right, and members of his family , whom he comes to know over the course of a month.
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Frank George is a plain-spoken 55-year-old electronics technician from Mojave, Calif. He's vehemently opposed to noncitizens illegally entering the United States, and to back up those beliefs, he's a gun-toting volunteer member of the Minutemen, a vigilante group that patrols the U.S.-Mexican border in search of any of the steady stream of illegals who try to cross over into the United States each day.

Frank sees no irony in the fact that he is a naturalized U.S. citizen, having emigrated from Cuba to Miami with his family when he was just 7 years old.

"When we came, there was no such thing as asylum or amnesty," he says. "We had to obey the laws of immigration. We weren't given any breaks. We just did it all legally."

Frank's tough views on illegals get a real workout in the season premiere of 30 Days, an entertaining and thought-provoking TV series that kicks off its second season at 10 tonight on the FX cable channel. Not only must this rigid conservative confront a seven-member family of illegal aliens who are crammed into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment in East Los Angeles, but he has to live with them for 30 days.

The show is a creation of writer and documentary-maker Morgan Spurlock, whose first feature film, Super Size Me, chronicled an entertaining - and disturbing - experiment in which he ate nothing but fast food from McDonald's for a month. The 2004 movie, which earned Spurlock an Oscar nomination, became one of the highest-grossing theatrical documentaries of all time. The experiment also nearly destroyed Spurlock's liver, raised his cholesterol level and blood pressure, and added 25 pounds to his formerly lean frame.

For his inspired documentary-style reality series 30 Days, Spurlock relies on a "fish out of water" approach: He pulls people out of their own element and has them try to function in unfamiliar and often uncomfortable surroundings for a month.

In its first season, the program included such adventures as a straight man living in a gay community and a woman who binge-drinks to show her daughter the dangers of alcohol. The best episode of the season featured Spurlock and his girlfriend trying to survive during the winter on minimum-wage jobs in Columbus.

For the premiere episode of season No. 2, Frank George finds himself, travel bag in hand, on the doorstep of Rigoberto and Patty Gonzales, who illegally crossed the border from their native Mexico in 1995. Today they and their five children have to make it on Rigoberto's off-the-books earnings as a handyman and day laborer, plus whatever Patty can make collecting aluminum cans and selling them at a recycling center. The family has never made more than $15,000 in a year.

After being welcomed into the Gonzales home, Frank tells his hosts that while he has nothing against them personally, he'd still like to see them deported. "I would have to," he explains earnestly while the family members look on icily. "That's the way the law is written."

As the days go by and Frank gets to know the family better, they become flesh-and-blood people to him and not just lawless intruders in his country.

"You know they've broken the law by being here, yet you feel for them," he says.

During his stay with the family, Frank begins to make a connection with them, particularly 17-year-old Armida, an honors student in high school who dreams of going to Princeton on a scholarship. She challenges his depiction of illegal immigrants as criminals and tries to convince him they're trying just as hard to get ahead as anyone born in the U.S.

By the time his month with the family is over, there's no doubt that Frank's perspective has changed, but is the Spurlock's noble experiment in having people walk a mile in someone else's shoes could easily come off as preachy, manipulative, or phony, but it doesn't. By having people experience life in a world that's so foreign to their own, they and the show's viewers can come away with a radically new perspective on things, maybe even knocking down a few wrongheaded notions along the way.

All that, and it's quite entertaining, too.

Future episodes of 30 Days will focus on other important and timely issues. Among them:

●A computer programmer who lost his job to outsourcing travels to Bangalore, India, where he lives and works with a family whose members work at computer jobs that were out-sourced from the United States.

●An atheist lives with a fundamentalist Christian family.

● n overworked and overstressed father tries to find New Age inner peace through yoga, acupuncture, and the teachings of his new "life coach."

• A pro-choice feminist lives and works in a group home for pregnant women.

●Morgan Spurlock spends a month as a jail inmate.

A series of four powerful documentary shorts nominated this year for Academy Awards will be shown beginning at 7 p.m. tomorrow on the premium cable channel Cinemax.

The first of the four, and the one that won the Oscar, is A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin.

Corwin, a celebrated producer of radio dramas in the 1930s and '40s, broadcast a work called On a Note of Triumph on VE Day in 1945. It was an unforgettable celebration of the Allied victory in Europe and was considered one of the greatest moments in the history of radio. Corwin hoped the world had learned its lesson from World War II, but numerous events since then have shown that he was being overly optimistic.

Other documentaries in the series, which will be shown on consecutive Thursdays, include these:

The Mushroom Club, which explores the legacy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 60 years ago.

God Sleeps in Rwanda, which follows five women as they try to bring hope to their fellow Rwandans in a war-torn nation.

The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, which tells the story of a Pulitzer-winning photo of a starving girl being stalked by a vulture, and how the photographer was demonized for snapping the picture instead of helping the girl.



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