Inside Man

Inside Man is a cross between investigative journalism and opinionated documentary, a more maverick take on what is by now a slightly outdated formula—the Sunday “newsmagazine,” an hour devoted to investigation and in-depth analysis. It’s got its heart in the right place, but Inside Man—like so much of cable news—is a flawed vehicle, one that doesn’t quite accomplish what it sets out to.

The heart and soul of Inside Man is Morgan Spurlock, the charismatic creator and star of Supersize Me. With Inside Man, Spurlock brings his unconventional, semi-activist documentary approach to CNN, a network that seems increasingly out of touch with how Americans get their news. For eight weeks, Inside Man investigates a divisive, lighting-rod national issue and attempts to unravel it. The first episode, which aired June 23, looked at the federal crackdown on medical marijuana. The second, which airs tonight, examines the gun control debate in the wake of the Newtown massacre.

Rather than solely rely on interviews for his investigative work, Spurlock immerses himself into his environments. He inserts himself into the situation at hand and asks questions as he goes along. At this point, Spurlock’s methodology is practically cliche—various of his methods in Inside Man, including the car monologue, are more or less intact from his work in Supersize Me—and yet every time he takes on a new issue, his take is still compelling. This self-involvement is what made Supersize Me stand out in 2004—and, to a lesser degree, his FX series 30 Days, which was canceled after three seasons.

Most striking of all in 30 Days was Spurlock’s voluntarily imprisonment—for 25 days in Henrico County, Va., including a 48-hour stint in solitary confinement. Inside Man doesn’t get quite that far—yet. Of the three episodes advanced to reviewers, only the third, which will air July 14, gets to the point where it feels like it’s pushing the envelope. That episode focuses on undocumented immigrants—and Spurlock takes it upon himself to work a day’s labor as a migrant farm worker in Polk County, Fla.—hauling 90-pound bags of oranges and spending the night in the communal workers’ shed. It compellingly sheds light on a segment of society that rarely gets attention.

The first two episodes have their moments of brilliance, but Spurlock’s role as immersive reporter doesn’t quite pay off. In the first, he works as a clerk in a medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, Ca.; in the second, he works at a gun store in Fredricksburg, Va. Both settings are undeniably politically charged, but Spurlock’s work isn’t quite involved enough. He uses the position as an opportunity to interview the clientele, and though he’s certainly likable and charming, it’s hard to see the difference between Inside Man and any other investigative news program, like 60 Minutes or Frontline.

Still, it’s an engaging show, bound to show you some element of America you haven’t seen yet. Part of Spurlock’s success is that he’s a hale, young white man—more easily able to blend into most situations that might for others invite scrutiny or danger. Morgan Spurlock can reasonably be interested in assault rifles. He can reasonably endanger his health with Big Macs. But the other element is that he’s enormously likeable. As he goes along on his adventures, he’s a charming figure for both the audience and his interviewees to talk to.

The show props up the work segments with segments in which Spurlock talks to the camera, narrates over infographics, and gets up close to the issues at hand—playing with assault rifles in someone’s backyard or touring a growing facility for marijuana. The subjects all get the breadth they deserve—Spurlock is particularly interested in issues as they play out for the average American, so his programs are full of satisfying soundbites from his interviewees—but they unfortunately lack depth. Some of this is due to the constraints of the medium—an hour isn’t going to cover gun control in America, no matter how hard anyone tries—and some is due to the tone of the program, which is aggressively middlebrow. Anyone who is well-versed—or even, versed—in these issues will find these programs disappointingly superficial.

Which points to one of Inside Man’s major flaws—Spurlock can only do so much when he puts himself in front of the camera. On one hand, his style of reporting shows enormous dedication and has the added benefit of calling attention to issues that do not always make headlines. At the same time, turning the camera on himself limits the scope of the news story and runs the risk of looking like stunt journalism.

The other problem with Inside Man is that it’s not clearly situated as either commentary or journalism. Reality, as Stephen Colbert tells us, has a well-known liberal bias, but all of the episodes so far end with a clear indictment, a clear judgment of a specific party or idea. Spurlock has very good intentions, but the program exists to prove his point. He might be perfectly right about everything, but it’s hard to believe him when the camera’s always on him. It’s additionally confusing to see unlabeled commentary on a cable news network.

But all of that being said, it’s good, worthwhile information, and Spurlock offers enough zest to keep it interesting.

Stray observations:

  • I have this wild theory that this type of risky, immersive journalism becomes more prevalent when traditional journalism is being threatened, either from internal or external forces. It’s neither here nor there, but it might influence your thoughts about the Inside Man.
  • Gun sales go up after mass shooting sprees, because gun aficionados are worried their rights will be taken from them. The most upsetting shot in the program is the Fredricksburg gun store, a week after Newtown, unable to keep up with the demand for assault rifles. 
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