It's finally happened: Reality TV has found religion.
In the A&E cable channel's new five-part "God or the Girl," four young men with a calling to the priesthood must decide whether to enter the seminary or serve God as laypeople.
'GOD OR THE GIRL' – Steve Horvath is one of four Catholic men with a calling to the priesthood featured in the new A&E reality series "God or the Girl." The five-part special will air beginning on Easter. (CNS/A&E Television Networks)
The series will air, appropriately enough, during Easter week, with the first two episodes premiering on Easter, April 16, 9-11 p.m. EDT. (The third and fourth hours debut Monday, April 17, 9-11 p.m. EDT, with the finale Sunday, April 23, 10-11 p.m. EDT.)
Apart from the slightly sensational title -- actually a misnomer as none of these devout men would ever consider abandoning God -- the series created by Darryl Silver, Stephen David and David Eilenberg and executive-produced by Silver and Mark Wolper offers a surprisingly reverential treatment of a profound life passage.
In its essentials, the series is as serious-minded as a public television documentary on the subject, albeit fitted out with all the trappings of "Survivor."
The four are a varied bunch. There's Joe Adair, a 28-year-old procrastinator from Ohio who has already been in the seminary twice but can't decide about a lifelong commitment, particularly when there's a warm and attractive girl who could be waiting for him in Germany. He's so infuriatingly indecisive, however, you may just want to shake your television set.
His frustrated mother Palma's disingenuously soft-pedal approach masks a fervent desire for her last available son to take the cloth.
There's Steve Horvath, a 25-year-old Virginian who chucked his lucrative consulting job, luxury home and girlfriend to become a campus missionary at the University of Nebraska. Steve is probably the most emotional of the four, his quivering sensitivity coming to the fore when he reluctantly accepts the challenge to go solo to Guatemala, where his worries range from the crime rate to his lack of Spanish. (Never mind that he'd be accompanied by a camera crew.)
The 24-year-old Mike Lechniak from Scranton, Pa., felt a calling at age 17, but has such a natural rapport with sympathetic girlfriend Aly that it's clear why he's highly conflicted.
And finally there's Dan DeMatte, a 21-year-old Ohio Dominican University student with an obvious talent for youth ministry who lives with nine other celibate young men in a house they call "Fort Zion." His relationship with girlfriend Amber is as amiable as Mike's is with Aly. The tug between collar and wedding ring promised by the title seems most vivid with Mike and Dan.
At one point, we see Dan organize a demonstration at an abortion clinic during which he engages in a lively debate with a couple of young women who support legalized abortion. Dan is less effective later when he takes on an articulate fundamentalist who insists the church led people "into error," an encounter that deeply frustrates Dan.
The series careens among all four, as Joe sets out for World Youth Day in Germany with older brother Tom, hoping to contact 24-year-old Anne -- though once there, days go by before he calls her.
Later in the series, he'll set off on a "pilgrimage" to Niagara Falls with not a dime in his pocket, and charm waitresses into feeding him, sometimes in return for doing odd jobs.
Though his housemates are skeptical, Dan -- on the advice of his mentor, Dominican Father Jeffrey Coning, to "seek the Lord in a radical way" -- embarks on a project to build and then carry a wooden cross for 20 miles. Of course, no one told him to build a cross weighing 80 pounds, and when you see Dan sweating and straining under the weight you'll feel his pain.
Mike must make up his mind quickly when the opportunity for a good teaching position materializes, and goes on retreat to sort things out in his mind. You may wonder at the pressure techniques of Father Francis Pauselli, his mentor, who seems to push way too hard for his charge to ditch Aly and become a priest. ("The two of you can still be friends," he assures Mike.)
At one point, Steve must break the news of his calling to his fraternity chums, and then set off with great trepidation -- especially after reading the government's security warnings -- for a brief ministry in Guatemala. Despite the avuncular support of local missionary Father George Puthenpura, some, if not all, of his fears will be realized.
The sincerity of all four is never in doubt even if their respective worldviews sometimes border on the naive, as when Mike describes his occasional yearning to hug his girlfriend as "sick and disgusting."
The program touches only lightly on the sex abuse shadow. "Everyone will think you're a child molester," remarks Steve at one point, anticipating outsiders' reactions.
We won't ruin the surprise of which of the four (if any) actually decides to enter the seminary, but the filmmakers have done all in their power to hook viewers, with standard pre-commercial teases and cliffhanger closes. And if those methods build a large audience for such an atypically religious-based series, then why not?
The filmmakers shot footage on a fifth subject who will appear on the forthcoming DVD version only.
An occasional crass expression and a few sexually related words and innuendo are the only flags among otherwise unobjectionable content.
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Forbes is director of the Office for Film & Broadcasting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops