The premise: Dave Gorman, a Britisher famous for his globe-trotting adventures, attempts to cross the continental United States without handing over a cent of his money to Corporate America.
And so the fun begins when Dave, bless him, buys a car from a kindly old gentleman in California. Dave, a man who’s been brought up to believe there’s good in everyone, swallows this bullshit merchant’s patois that the crappy 1970s estate he’s selling has a tank capacity of twenty two gallons and has never, in thirty years, broken down. Dave, beguiled into a romantic notion that travelling across the States must be done in something idiosyncratic and old, takes this liar at his word and drives off in said estate, an ugly lump of crap that’s already developed an alarming clattering sound before he’s even got it out of the driveway. Great, nice one, Dave – that’s what trust does for you.
Money to ‘The Man’ (Dave’s term for those evil corporations we’re all supposed to hate etc.): Nothing, unless you count the money The Man was paid for the motor in the first place (mung bean collectives in eco-communes on the Isle of Sheppey don’t usually make motor cars, sadly).
So it’s off to an independent muffler shop to get the car Dave’s just bought from a fucking liar repaired. The man at the muffler shop confesses that, after he retires, the shop will probably go down the pan. This, it transpires, is a damn shame as the independent muffler shop can make custom-made mufflers on the spot, whereas the big chains would have to order the parts. Dave and the man at the muffler shop have a conversation about how you won’t get this level of service, vis-à-vis custom-made parts, from a big chain and, yes, they’re broadly correct. You’d expect a chain muffler shop to stock mufflers for motor cars made in the 21st Century, as opposed to ones made in 1978. Chain muffler shops have to service a local community who aren’t setting out to prove some sort of point by driving around in a really old car. The independent muffler store man has the time to make one-off mufflers for 1970s motor cars because he’s not rushing around servicing loads of newer cars every day – the larger chains just take one off the shelves for the majority of 2000-2007 models it gets driving up its ramps. That’s not their fault.
Money to ’The Man’: Zero, except for the metal required for the muffler and the machine that makes the muffler (Guardian-worshipping fair-trade coffee-shoppers aren’t known for their industrial metal working/precision machine tooling skills).
With the car repaired (for now – having been purchased off a liar, it breaks down quite a few more times), Dave sets off towards Oregon to visit a town called ‘Independence’. Of course, he soon needs to stock up on petrol and, as he’s not giving any money to ‘The Man’, he has to find petrol that’s been herded by a kindly Bedouin Nomad on his oil farm in the Arabian Desert. Dave pulls into the first of many ‘independent’ petrol stations and fills his car made from fairy dust and unicorn sparkles with lovely, craft shop petrol just like mum used to make …
… except he doesn’t, of course. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that crude oil, if it is to be profitable, has to be pumped out of the ground on an industrial scale by companies like Shell, Texaco, Exxon and BP. That oil has to come from fucked up dictatorships in the Middle East and is subsidised with lucrative contracts from arms manufacturers and government backhanders. The oil then has to be transported via pipelines laid by ‘The Man’, to tankers built and operated by ‘The Man’, to refineries run by ‘The Man’, into petrol tankers operated by ‘The Man’, into pumps built by ‘The Man’, and then sold by the only guy in this process that isn’t ‘The Man’ (though, to be fair to ‘The Man’, the guy that owns the service station has handed over his money to ‘The Man’ to buy the petrol to put in his pumps).
Therefore, Money to ’The Man’: All of it, ultimately (if only the soya bean alliance had pulled their fingers out and got into the international oil/arms trade, Dave’s entire project wouldn’t have been rendered null and void from the very first fill-up, ah well).
And so off Dave goes, across the USA, not giving any money to ‘The Man’. Along the way he eats independent food grown by vast American conglomerates (farming in the US just ain’t the family affair it used to be in the … whenever the hell it was), he sleeps in independent hotels furnished with stuff like beds, chairs and TVs made by ‘The Man’, he keeps on pumping that eco-fuel that puts two fingers up to ‘The Man’ (and money in his wallet – take that, corporate America!) , etc. etc. etc.
As Dave washes up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, he’s proved, quite conclusively, that you can’t get across the continental United States without giving any money to ‘The Man’ because:
1. He’s already had his money before you even show up.
2. Even when you think he’s not having any of your money, he is.
3. Dave gives plenty of money to ‘The Man’ when he feasts on McDonalds and Burger King and fills up his car at a chain petrol station (as opposed to a chain petrol station in disguise, see above).
Now, Dave Gorman is a funny man. His books outlining his adventures in the world of stupid bets are great. His live stage shows are often one of the best on the circuit. His regular TV appearances are always entertaining, and the show he currently hosts on the radio has been such a success, it’s transferring to the box. Fair play to him, can’t argue with that.
I can argue with this documentary, though. What, exactly, was the point of America Unchained? If it was another of those vacuous ‘endurance documentaries’ like Supersize Me, then it shared that movie’s ultimate worthlessness. Can you eat McDonalds for a month and be completely unscathed by the experience? No – didn’t need to make a film to answer that one. Can you drive across the most corporate-shackled country on Earth without handing over any money to ‘The Man’? No – didn’t need to make a documentary to find that one out.
If it was a comedy travelogue, then it failed too. Dave in a car, Dave stuck in a small town, Dave filling up a car, and Dave checking into a motel aren’t half as funny as Dave explaining how he ended up jet-setting around the world thanks to his penchant for getting pissed with Danny Wallace. Comedy travelogues need to contain a lot of comedy to counterbalance all those boring shots of roads – this didn’t.
So what was it, exactly? Well too long, for a start. At one hour and forty minutes, a documentary featuring a man either driving or filling up a car doesn’t make for particularly riveting TV. The endless repetition of Dave driving around looking for fuel was boring and indulgent – without that it would have been a serviceable (if still pointless) hour long.
It also wasn’t very well filmed. More4 obviously decided to keep the show’s budget as low as possible, so the whole thing was filmed by one man sat next to Dave in a car. Hence the lighting was bland, the camera frequently shaky, and for the most part focused on a side-profile of Dave … driving a car. To look at, it stank, quite frankly.
There was a gem of a documentary here. Without the silly ‘message’ shit, America Unchained could have been a quirky little show along the lines of a Louis Theroux – Dave in independent America. There was a hint of that in Dave’s decision to go to towns named ‘Independence’ to see how independent they really were. If they’d cut out the challenge rubbish (if you want challenges where funny people drive around doing crazy things, it’s called Top Gear) and focused instead on the independent spirit I, like Dave, hopes still exists in the USA, this show could have been a little corker. As it was, it was a very funny man in an unfunny situation doing a completely pointless thing we all knew wasn’t going to work in the first place. A shame.