Judge William Lee may have forgotten a diet soda on his desk at the office.
"I think people are fat because we live in an age of self-gratification."—Sir Roy Strong
Can a reality TV show change the way you live? The 12 participants in this U.K. series aren't competing for prizes; they're running for their lives. Watching them overcome personal physical and psychological challenges to become healthier, it is a quietly inspiring spectacle.
Facts of the Case
Nine overweight Brits volunteer for an experiment at the (fictitious) Institute of Physical Culture. For 24 days they must adhere to the weight loss diets of past generations and endure the close scrutiny of Sir Roy Strong, the director of the institute. The participants are split into three teams of three. The Victorians follow a meal plan that is high in meat and low in carbohydrates, a forerunner to the Atkins diet. The Edwardians can eat what they want but must chew their food 32 times before swallowing. The final trio must stick to history's first calorie controlled diet developed in the 1920s.
The series consists of six 50-minute episodes spread between two discs. The first two episodes introduce the dieters and get them acquainted with their eating programs. Then the real work begins when the institute staff teaches the dieters how to look after their overall health. Exercise is a major component of their education and visiting experts also share their knowledge about different techniques to healthy living. During their stay, the volunteers are regularly tempted by sweet and fatty treats. The journey to better health isn't easy.
The Diets That Time Forgot is noticeably different from American reality TV shows. For starters, the competition element is completely flipped. Instead of the solo winner takes all angle, the dieters compete in teams to prove which historical diet is the most effective. Also, there's no cash prize to be won. The mini contests and weigh ins that are the regular features to every episode are likewise devoid of the reward and consequence mechanism that is common with these shows. Instead, there are no villains, no plotting and no backstabbing. However, there's still much drama courtesy of the various characters in the situation.
The volunteer dieters are regular people of various ages. They are refreshingly real and honest. They all want to lose some excess pounds and they all have their weaknesses. Even if some of them are not instantly likeable, they are definitely relatable. Nikki has grown up as a tomboy and she has a strong anxiety about her body image. Watching her deal with self-confidence issues really makes her story resonate. Seeing the almost-50 David repeatedly give in to temptation is both comic and pathetic so it is quite a relief to witness him gradually learning self-discipline. The cool and quiet Vaughan is always game for any challenge whether it's army drills or naked table tennis. All of the participants are genuine about their involvement but all of them have their breaking points. Regardless of age or gender, they can all swear like sailors when pushed too far.
The institute staff members are a hoot because they stubbornly stay in character throughout the experiment. Sir Roy, an author and historian in real life, is the ultra serious director who demands proper manners and strict observance of the diet programs. Jane DeVille-Almond is the nurse consultant and matron who looks after the dieters with a firm yet tender hand. Professor Peter Radford, a former sprinter and Olympic athlete, leads the exercise regimen. Lady Elizabeth Devonport (Regency House Party) instructs the guests in dance and other cultural aspects but she spends most of her time showing the 1920s group what it meant to be living in the Roaring '20s.
It is entertaining to see the dieters fit into their period costumes and suffer their specific diets. A lot of humor is had from watching them endure period treatments like electro-therapy, cold baths and colonic irrigation. There are also activities like the paper chase and camping that give them a chance to enjoy the outdoors. Episodes also feature quite a bit of information that is useful to viewers. The episode about the digestive system is hugely fascinating, hilarious and disgusting. Occasional historical facts are dropped that are quite interesting, such as: a treatment for tuberculosis led to the tradition of sunbathing, the term "stay fit" was originally "stay fit for military service," and naturism was a reaction to World War I.
The show is presented in 1.33:1 full frame format. The picture is average for a reality show shot on digital video. The visuals are consistent in that they're flatly illuminated and the colors are slightly drained. The audio is decent for the most part when it comes to the dialogue on screen and the music. The biggest problem is that the narration by Samantha Morton is weakly mixed on the first three episodes. The narration helps establish the rules for the dieters' experiment and it talks about those historical factoids that make the gimmick relevant to viewers. It is unfortunate, therefore, that it's a struggle to hear what is being said. On the second disc, the narration sounds much better.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Acorn Media has previously released educational and documentary DVDs with a healthy supply of supplements. It's too bad, then, that they have a lower regard for The Diets That Time Forgot. This is an entertaining and informative documentary. Some text screens to summarize the three diets would have been useful. As disgusting as it may sound, the chart of various stool consistencies would have been an excellent insert. Instead, there are no extras included and viewers will just have to hunt for those various health tips offered during the program.
This is the rare reality show that overcomes its gimmick to provide viewers with really useful information. The competition between the three teams and the personal development of the participants makes for a reasonably entertaining viewing experience. However, the real value of the show is inspiring viewers to reconsider their own lifestyle habits. Personally speaking, the show has definitely had an effect on me in the short term. Chewing each mouthful 32 times turns out to be not that difficult after all.
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