Why Watching Israeli Reality TV Made 'Super Size Me' Producer Angry

Morgan Spurlock, the producer of a documentary about eating nothing but McDonald’s and the American version of the hit Israeli reality show ‘Connected’ talks about the docu-reality genre.

AP

Morgan Spurlock says the Israeli show “Mehubarim” (“Connected”) is everything a reality television show should be. As the first season of the American version, which he produces and stars in, goes on the air, he will speak next week at a Jerusalem conference on the maturing of reality television.

It’s not easy to anger Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker who made a name for himself with his first film, “Super Size Me,” in which he ate nothing but McDonald’s fare for a month to see what physical and emotional effects it would have on him (the film brought him the Best Director prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar). But he was really upset when he saw the first episode of the pioneering Israeli series “Mehubarim,” in which a number of participants film themselves for a period of time, creating an intimate documentary mosaic of their lives.

“I was upset that I didn’t think of this kind of show myself,” explains Spurlock. “There are not many things that I get upset by, not many things that when I watch make me angry, but when I saw the first episode of the show and I met Ram Landes, the creator, for the first time, I told him I was so angry when I saw this show ‘cause I was mad at myself that I didn’t think of it by myself. It was just so pure and so lovely, it’s almost as if you don’t see the forest for the trees, it’s right in front of your face. It was really just a well done show, there were a couple of attempts to do this kind of show in the States in the past, but what I love about this is that the people in the show film themselves. I thought that that was what made the show really special.”

Spurlock, a director, screenwriter and documentary film producer, who founded and heads the New York-based Warrior Poets Production Studio, has produced and distributed a wide array of documentary projects for television, cinema and the Internet. He will participate in the INTV Conference for Innovation in Television to be held early next week at the YMCA in Jerusalem.

At the conference he will speak on a panel about adaptations, using ‘Mehubarim’ as a test case, alongside Landes (who created the series together with Doron Tsabari) and journalist Dana Spector, who was in the cast of the first season of the Israeli show. He says the show is the epitome of what a reality show should be: dealing with real life, real situations and real problems.

Spurlock is currently working on the third season of the CNN series “Inside Man”; he created the “Day in the Life” series, as well as the special 20th-anniversary show for The Simpsons; and also presented the program “50 Documentaries to See Before You Die,” in which Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” was ranked fourth. Among the many projects he’s working on now, he cites a film called “Rats,” about the rat population worldwide. He loved horror films as a kid, and this documentary will certainly be causing plenty of shudders.

Interviewed by phone from New York, he says he thinks a show like Mehubarim will do especially well in America because we’re already living in the world of the Selfie Generation, in which people are posting their own short videos on Instagram and Vine. “The barriers of our expectations of things looking beautiful and everything has to look like a Kubrick film have gone. We’ve become much more forgiving as an audience, it’s much more about the story, and the reason that Connected works is that it’s always about these people and their stories. they will top everything.”

The American docu-reality show, debuting on March 31, will consist of 20 half-hour episodes in which six people from New York record their lives on camera. With the exception of actress Susan Sarandon, the other participants are not celebrities. Perhaps the best known is Lori Levine, owner of a large PR firm, and her fiancé Jan van Arsdale. Other participants include writer Jonathan Bricklin (boyfriend of Sarandon), and Derek Gaines, a stand-up comic who at the start of the show is still living with his mother, but in the course of the show gets his big breakthrough – the chance to host a show on MTV. Also in the cast are interior designer Nina Ferrer-Manino and her husband Stefano Manino, TV anchor Rosie Noesi and her boyfriend Joshua Baggett, and Eli and Ido Bendet-Taicher, married high-tech executives originally from Israel. Spurlock says that aside from the show being in English and taking place in New York, it is very similar to the original. The plan is to tell more stories in other places in the future.

At the conference in Jerusalem, Spurlock will talk about television’s power to influence and the maturing of the reality industry. “Now is the time for smart programming. What happened in the last few years is that the bar for scripted television has consistently been raised in every network and all around the world, but what hasn’t happened in many ways is that the bar for non-scripted television hasn’t come up with it, but the expectations have rapidly gotten higher, we want to be treated better than in the past ... Now there needs to be a massive transition of non-scripted television. That’s the opportunity we have as producers – to push that envelope, to create things that are smart, that are engaging and that are going to challenge audiences in a way that never happened.”

Is this an attempt to free reality television of its bad reputation?

“I’m tired of seeing mud fights in a mud pit. It’s almost like embarrassment television, shock tv. For me there’s a much more aspirational level. We want to be part of that conversation, of making smart content. Now there are so many outlets and so many digital options, if you are a content creator with a strong and individual voice you can find an audience for that, you can go online, you can build that partnership with a network. There’s a kind of democratization of production. Back when I made Super Size Me, which is now 11-12 years ago, anyone with a camera, a computer and a good idea could make a movie, now everyone with a camera, a computer and a good idea can distribute it anywhere in the world.”