MONTEGO BAY, Jamaica — The man who boasts of changing the face of diabetes spreads his arms out wide, like the Christ the Redeemer statue, but in neon orange shorts and bare feet. He looks earnestly into the rolling camera.
“Welcome to ‘Reversed,’” he intones. Seated behind him are four of his disciples: Americans with type 2 diabetes who’ve flown to this tropical beach town to participate in a reality TV show marketed as a momentous opportunity to restore their health. Over eight days, they’ll learn to exercise and eat right and bare their struggles in cathartic therapy sessions.
Their host, Charles Mattocks, is a smooth-talking, fast-moving entrepreneur, who has leveraged his family fame (his uncle was Bob Marley) and his own medical history (he uses diet and exercise, not insulin, to manage his diabetes) to set himself up as a guru to diabetics everywhere.
In an age where nearly 1 in 10 Americans has diabetes, a disease that can bring a lifetime of painful complications, patients are often desperate for miraculous turnarounds — and there’s a booming trade in supplements, diets, and self-help books that promise answers. Now, there’s a TV show, too.
But “Reversed” is unlikely to prove anyone’s salvation.
The show, which will begin airing next month on cable, is at once a vehicle for Mattocks to proselytize his gospel of self-help, a marketing gambit by a pharma company that’s running out of money, and a season-long advertisement for a luxury getaway at the sparkling resort where it was filmed.
The carefully choreographed, relentlessly upbeat atmosphere cultivated under the Jamaican sun feels, well, unreal. Back at home, the show’s stars — like the viewers expected to tune in — don’t have in-house chefs to cook them healthy meals or mentors to guide them through yoga lessons.
Instead, they’re grappling with the stubborn realities and compounding challenges so common in patients with chronic disease: deteriorating vision, nerve damage in their feet, congestive heart failure, hypertension, high body fat, the inability to work and even to walk. Just before the show, one of the participants lost her home; two others, a married couple, had been relying on food banks because they hadn’t been able to afford to go to a grocery store for months.
Mattocks, the show’s executive producer and creator, said he originally imagined “Reversed” as “‘The Biggest Loser’ meets diabetes” — a reference to the long-running weight-loss competition on NBC.
But the participants on “Reversed” aren’t competing. Judging from the two days of filming that STAT observed, the show has more in common with the reality TV tradition of putting a bunch of strangers in a house together and seeing what happens. Call it The Real World: Diabetes, featuring burned kale chips, frowned-on cigarette breaks, and one participant’s dramatic decision to quit the show. (“I don’t think he was coming here for the right reasons at all,” Mattocks told STAT, borrowing the ultimate reality TV insult.)
So it went for the week of filming, as Mattocks put his cast members through a quirky array of activities: There were massages, just steps from the glittering Caribbean. Trust exercises featuring blindfolds, a basketball, and a banana. Lessons about natural remedies and medicinal plants on a day trip to a nearby farm.
The camera operators scurried on instinct toward any hint of drama or tears. And they didn’t always abide by the show’s lessons for good health: At lunch one day, for instance, the diabetics ate seasoned vegetables and sipped water while some crew members chowed on hamburgers and swigged from plastic bottles of Ting, a sugary citrus soda popular in the Caribbean.
The debut 10-episode season airs this summer on Discovery Life, a cable channel that specializes in medical programming starring real people, like “The Boy With No Brain” and “Untold Stories of the ER.” Last year it drew an average of 88,000 viewers a night during prime time, according to Valeria Almada, a spokeswoman for the channel. That ranks around 97th among networks, by one recent estimate of viewership.
The show’s primary sponsor is MannKind, an insulin manufacturer that’s in bad financial shape. Neither the show nor the company would say how much the sponsorship cost, but MannKind will get advertising spots for its struggling insulin inhaler, Afrezza, during commercial breaks and perhaps a brief mention of the product on the show itself.
Dangling the hope of reversing diabetes
Mattocks makes a point of telling STAT that he’s not promising anyone they can “reverse” their diabetes. But he has, in the past, said exactly that.
And one of the sponsors of his show expressly promised that, too — on camera. The company, OneCare, makes software to help patients manage their diabetes. And in exchange for his $6,000 sponsorship, CEO Gary Austin got to film a segment on set in Jamaica in which he explains to the cast members how his product works — and tells them it will help them vanquish diabetes. “It’s possible,” he told them. “You can reverse it.”
Three of the patients Mattocks recruited for the show are convinced. “I truly believe that within the next year I will no longer be called a diabetic,” said Lisa Campbell, cheerful and effortlessly expressive in her Southern drawl.