Part of documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's method has long been to insert himself into the story -- it's served him well from his debut feature, "Super Size Me," a decade ago right up to his recent CNN series, "Inside Man." But for his new seven-episode series on Showtime, "7 Deadly Sins," which begins Thursday, the never camera-shy Spurlock has restricted his role to that of a simple introductory host, appearing Alfred Hitchcock-like in a series of campy wrap-around segments. Based on the subject matter, that decision may have been for the good of his own health.
"7 Deadly Sins" centers each of its episodes on one of Christianity's famous cardinal sins: gluttony, envy, lust, wrath, pride, greed and sloth. And in true pay-cable fashion, Spurlock and co-creator Jeremy Chilnick are interested in nothing less than the most extreme and shocking cases.
For example, the episode on lust features Exotic Erotics, a company that creates life-casted sex toys molded from real animal genitalia, including from horses and dogs, and elephant trunks and giraffe tongues. The gluttony episode profiles the founder of the notorious Heart Attack Grill, a Las Vegas restaurant committed to creating coronary distress in anyone who chooses to eat its sloppy Bypass Burgers and lard-saturated French fries. Spurlock and company don't shy away from gratuitous shots of desperately unhealthy-looking people lovingly ingesting these disgusting-looking creations, but thankfully they focus the sex toy segment on the creation and not the enjoyment of the items.
Still, this isn't a series to watch with the family.
But as squirm-inducing as some of the segments can be, the series doesn't appear interested in creating a sense of lurid wish fulfillment. Despite artful photography and a penchant for loving slow-motion shots, these vices, as described both by those who enjoy and provide them, become demystified through the explaining. It's the Forbidden Fruit chopped and diced and turned into a non-threatening fruit salad.
That prostitute at the brothel? Turns out she's a grandmother of nine. That company that makes the kind of silicone female skin suits that would make "The Silence of the Lamb's" Buffalo Bill jealous? It's a family business run by a widow and her two sons.
The participants all seem earnest in their predilections, and by allowing them to tell their own tales, the production team presents them all in a refreshingly non-judgmental light. (Except for Heart Attack Grill founder Jon Basso, who seems intent on making himself a boogeyman for the obese.)
However, occasionally the interviewees will let slip a statement that almost begs for a more extensive exploration or an outside perspective. The son of the deceased founder of the female skin suit company admits he doesn't want to simply carry on his father's legacy but to "crush" him. And Basso charts his transformation from fitness freak to purveyor of deadly foods but has a relationship with his customers that would best be described by a psychologist.
Curiously, many of the tales look at the business side of sin. No matter the desire, there's always money to be made. Which suggests that perhaps no matter how we comport ourselves, greed is the most inescapable sin of all.