Charles Stuart Platkin really does want to save your life

WEtv is currently airing I Want to Save Your Life, a weight-loss series that does not involve competition or humiliation. Instead, it’s one guy helping one person, as Charles Stuart Platkin uses his knowledge–part of which he gained while losing weight himself–to help that person regain control of their life. I talked to him recently about the show and his work, and if anything was clear during our conversation, it was his commitment to these topics and passion about helping other people. As we talked, he was setting up to begin a two-week study on food choices as part of his doctoral work. I Want to Save Your Life really is his life.

In 2001, he published Breaking the Pattern, which offers a “research-supported process” to changing bad patterns. But he told me that while initially “I didn’t believe a word I had written,” he eventually realized that the familiar self-help mantras when put together in a process “do help to change negative patterns.” He took his own advice and worked on his weight and issues with relationships–problems, he said, seemed “unsolvable for me, and I was amazed” at the results. He went on to focus on and write more about weight loss, and eventually producers approached him about turning that into a reality TV show. Charles described his work as a “focus in nutrition and public health advocacy,” and he aims to “synthesize material that’s out there and bring it to an understandable level,” from research to food to fitness. He tries to raise “awareness,” like analyzing airline food or trying to force Starbucks to reveal the nutrition facts in their beverages. Raising awareness is a good description of what the series does.

One of the better parts of the show is its takeaways. Besides the advice and knowledge Charles dispenses, there are contextual on-screen facts that pop up throughout each episode, like one about the difference between walking and running in terms of calorie consumption. As I told Charles, I’ve become mildly obsessed with finding and eating whole-grain food since after watching the first few episodes, since they taught me that whole grains are both healthy and fill you up (for some reason, I thought the opposite was true, probably because I wanted to have an excuse to gorge on crappy carbs).

Each episode follows him helping one person understand why they are overweight and then learn how to change their life, but there’s a new person each week, and ever episode is just a half hour, which means each person’s journey unfolds quickly, in 21 minutes or so in TV time. Hell, Allison Sweeney can barely get out a sentence in 30 minutes on The Biggest Loser. Speaking of that show, all weight loss reality series invite comparison to The Biggest Loser just by existing, and when we talked about it, Charles said, “This is really more realistic,” citing The Biggest Loser‘s time commitment (three plus months of nothing but diet and exercise) and noting that his show is about “taking people in their real-life situations, almost in a MacGyver way” helping them solve their problems with the tools they have available. “I don’t expect them to work out six hours a day. It’s just not practical,” he said. “I’m not criticizing that show, but we didn’t offer any prize. The prize is your health.”

While he said the NBC show is “pure entertainment,” he also talked out the struggles of translating a public health message into an entertaining TV show. He said he’d tell the participants, “there’s TV, and then there’s you and I, and you and I are what matters.” While that was “an interesting hurdle” he said “the production company was great,” although he separated “what I’m trying to do and what they’re trying to do,” and noted that neither the network nor the producers would necessarily think of the series as a public health campaign.

Yet that’s what he wants to do: “communicate messages that show healthier behaviors and make it entertaining so people learn something” and “so they actually can make a change,” he told me. He said some public health campaigns “are not good marketing” and are thus “disasters” because they fail to engage the public’s attention.

As to the series, he said “the show has a lot of integrity” and he’ll “know six out of nine of [the participants] probably for the rest of my life.” But producers “missed a lot of the gold” and “a lot of emotional moments between the participant and myself,” he said, because cameras weren’t around 24/7. “I didn’t want it to be forced; I wanted it to be more natural,” Charles said. Most episodes include an exploration of the person’s home environment and fridge, a workout, a shopping trip, and some kind of dramatic but purposeful illustration of the person’s particular issue, like in the first episode when he had a woman walk for the number of hours it would take to burn off the calories in the piece of cake she was holding. At the end of the episode, Charles checks back in with the person after a few months have passed. The transformations are significant and sometimes dramatic, but usually not shockingly so; Charles told me that one person didn’t lose any weight, and he was glad they’ll show that episode because it’s realistic.

Charles calls himself “the diet detective,” and has written a column under that title, and so each episode starts with him “detecting” what’s not working in the person’s life. It’s definitely over-dramatized–and some of it is filmed later as pick-up shots–but as someone pointed out to me, it’s vaguely odd that he’s spying on fat people eating, which perpetuates the idea that fat people are constantly being judged by skinnier people. The spying, basically, is “with their consent,” he said, noting that everyone applied for the show, and clips from their application videos are included later in the episode. “They didn’t know that they were going to be chosen; they just thought they were an applicant,” he said. When he surprises each person, that “did make them somewhat vulnerable,” he said, but that “opens them up for the possibility of change. … You need to investigate something before you show someone what their actual issues are. You’re trying to short-circuit a process that could eventually take years,” he said.

Charles said that it’s difficult to “make everything so perfectly clear from an ethical standpoint” and said these are “very sensitive issues,” so he was focused on “making sure there’s integrity in the process, protecting the participants,” rather than how the show was constructed. He added, “I would hate for someone to ever have any kind of negative reaction to what the show is trying to do,” and said that would “cut me.” He definitely takes the show and its content personally, but I don’t say that critically.

A decision about a second season probably won’t come until late August, after the first eight-episode season airs. “I’m proud of how it came out. Yes, there are a lot of things I’d fix in a season two, or make better or stronger, maybe even make it an hour,” Charles told me. As for the first season, which airs new episodes Saturday nights at 10 p.m. ET, Charles said he hopes viewers takes away the fact that “weight loss is not so simple. It’s not just closing your mouth and exercising more, there’s a lot more to it,” he said, and “you need to look inside to change the outside. Each person’s unique, and there isn’t a general prescription for everyone. And it does involve being your own diet detective, looking your own life and examining it–and doing the work. … Doing the work is taking all of that insight and that motivation that you have at the beginning of losing weight, and applying that permanently.”

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.