IF YOU CAN STILL TELL the difference between any of the reality shows on television, you have noticed that they are invariably about one of three things: (1) good-looking people melodramatically debasing themselves in contrived contests for a sum of money between $50,000 and $1,000,000 (or the pleasure of Donald Trump's company); (2) less good-looking people having their kitchens/faces/children renovated; (3) F-list character actors trying to out fox-trot aging comedians and former boxers.
A&E did not set out to do anything different. In rolling out their five-episode reality mini-series God or the Girl on Easter Sunday, the network was hoping to attract basic cable's equivalent of the conservative Christian vote. But there was no way a reality show where the four contestants are competing to become Roman Catholic priests can avoid being different.
"Contestant" isn't really the correct nomenclature. The game-showy title aside, God or the Girl is part of recognizable brand of challenge-less reality-documentaries that A&E has been cultivating, beginning with Airline and Dog the Bounty Hunter. But here, the usually tedious form comes into much sharper focus.
The four subjects are Joe, a doubtful 28-year-old who's been in and out of seminary since high school; Dan, a zealous campus Catholic with a hippie's haircut; Steve, a formerly high-earning engineer who abandoned his job, his condo, and his car to try and discern God's plan for him; and Mike, a grown-up altar boy who idolizes his parish priest. For reasons that are not made exactly clear, each has a month do decide whether or not to commit to a life of celibacy.
"Competing," in the Fear Factor sense of the word, isn't right either. Staying in four completely separate storylines, the four struggle only against themselves. Joe flies to Germany to half-heartedly re-connect with a girl he once almost dated and may kind of be in love with. Steve comes out of the ecclesiastical closet to his former frat brothers at a tailgate party. These sort of spiritual travails are more difficult to transform into television than a construction worker pretending to be a millionaire for a crowd of aspiring trophy wives. Consequently, God or the Girl came out of the gate at a languid pace.
The producers did their best to sex the show up. Between music video-paced montages of shadowy Madonna icons and incense billows, voiceovers luridly pose the ultimate option: " . . . or a life of celibacy." It doesn't work. The show's sex appeal could fit on the head of a pin leaving plenty of room for dancing angels. Only Mike is actually dating someone. The rest, already abstinent, weigh celibacy in the abstract. Talking to the camera in reality-show confessional style, they talk about the c-word in terms of whether they can lop off their desire to start a family of their own, not whether they can live without sex. A more un-sexy conflict there could not be. Which makes it kind of exotic, and irresistible.
The show is ultimately pushed along by doubt. Theirs, of course, but more so yours. God or the Girl opens up a decision-making process that's out of sight for most of the faithful, and it turns out, it's not as godly a process as it seems. Mike's idol, Father Pauselli, flits around him, consistently coming across as grim and judging, pushing Mike towards the priesthood for elusive but none-too-sympathetic reasons of his own. And Mike might take vows because of him. Joe's weighty indecision gets much lighter when he sits down at a diner counter, takes a menu and can't make a simple choice.
These are men who may one day be assuring their flock of God's will. And for all they try to discern God's will in their lives, they know that they don't know for sure. Unless you're a committed atheist, the implications get under your skin.
Nonetheless, the four young men paralyze your channel-changing finger. You need to see what will make them, and you, sure. The action picks up speed as they go looking for guidance. Joe abruptly sets out on a pilgrimage: a three day hike across Ohio, to Niagara Falls, without cash, credit cards or food--just faith. Mike gets a surprise job offer at a local high school, and a seven-day deadline to take it or leave it. Dan builds an 80-pound cross and tries to carry it 20 miles. Steve pushes himself to visit a remote Guatemalan mission, and contemplating the squalor, starts to think God wants him to go back to the corporate world so he can earn a ton of money and send a dozen other missionaries to Guatemala in his place.
Then something happens that often happens in reality and frequently happens in scripted dramas, but almost never happens on reality TV. The characters change. Not their make-up, their nose, or their tribe: Them. It isn't quite a lightening bolt from heaven, but Joe, Dan, Mike and Steve, each in their own way, close in on their decisions as discernibly different people than they were when the camera first landed on them. Some more confident in their direction, others less.
God or the Girl doesn't quite have what it takes to save the soul of reality television. But by grabbing hold of few simple things, it's a vision that studio executives should pay attention to before greenlighting The Apprentice's next season.
Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.