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Showboating for the Lord

A&E’s new reality series “God or the Girl” examines the sacrifices of aspiring priests. (Read: four men in the throes of arrested development air their spiritual laundry on TV.)

By Mary Beth Crain

In the breathtakingly crass world of reality TV, “God or the Girl” stands head and shoulders above the rabble. Not because it’s better than the other dreck, but because it takes the biggest, boldest leap yet into the muck of shameless narcissism that has become the hallmark of the genre.

It started a few years back with “Big Brother,” the incredibly boring chronicle of strangers sharing a house and their supremely uninteresting spats and squabbles for too many weeks. Then there was “Survivor,” the simply incredible chronicle of the lengths to which human beings will go to prove their insanity while doing each other in. By then, millions were hooked on the human circus, and there’s been no dearth of volunteers to keep the beast fed. “Nanny 911” and “Super Nanny”—would you want to reveal on national TV what bird-brained parents you are and what horrid brats you’ve spawned? “Honey, We’re Killing the Kids”—would you flaunt your sizeable girth, and that of your lazy, whiny, gluttonous offspring, to the whole wide world? “Shalom in the Home”—would you want that noisy, annoying Rabbi Shmuley driving up to your house in his big ass Airstream and airing your awful marriage and its miserable consequences to the four corners of the globe?

All of these shows are little more than embarrassing exposes of inanity, at best worth a snort, a giggle, and a sigh of regret, that this is what the human race has sunk to. But “God or the Girl” is something new. It’s not just stupid people flaunting their stupid lives. It’s Earnest Young Men baring their souls to the world as they search for their spiritual identity and destiny. What could be more worthy of human interest? What could be more “respectful and moving,” as People Magazine observed? What could be more absurd?

One’s spiritual journey is, by nature, not meant for the camera. It is an intensely personal affair, an intimate relationship with God that is generally attained in private, through reflection, prayer, meditation, and silence. Sacrifices and struggles are made and endured unobtrusively. Conversations with one’s spiritual advisor are sacred.

But not anymore! In “God or the Girl,” four guys ranging in age from 21 to 28 are more than happy to air their spiritual laundry in what becomes a voyeuristic experience that’s at best distasteful, and at worst downright dull.

There’s baby-faced Joe, waffling about whether to become a priest or find a nice girl. Trouble is, Joe is not only a 28-year-old virgin—he hasn’t even kissed a girl yet! There’s 23-year-old Mike, caught between the call to the priesthood and the call to become a teacher and marry his soul mate. There’s 25-year-old Steve, who gave up a wealthy businessman’s life to become a campus minister and missionary and, he hopes and prays, a priest. And there’s tousle-haired, self-satisfied Daniel, an obnoxious fundamentalist Catholic who’s convinced, with all the arrogance of a 21-year-old who knows everything there is to know, that he’s been called to become “an evangelical for the Lord.”

Do four grown men in the throes of arrested development make for edge-of-the-seat TV? Well, maybe edge-of-the-toilet-seat TV.

The biggest problem with the show is its premise—that the “struggles” of these young men are worth our time. Poor Joe has “commitment issues.” He spent years in seminary but couldn’t make the final decision to become a priest. He developed a relationship with Anna, a lovely young woman in Germany, but when he returned to the U.S. he didn’t call, didn’t write, and, on his next trip to Cologne for World Youth Day, was much more excited about catching a glimpse of Pope Benedict than seeing his sweetie. Then, when he finally got around to calling her, he just couldn’t figure out why she hung up on him! Borrrinnng!

Steve is equally tedious. While we can appreciate his decision to sell his $500,000 condo for God, we need a hefty swig of Pepto Bismol to deal with his decision to join a campus ministry. During a planning session with the Campus Crusaders, Steve’s cutesy co-ed supervisor dispenses conversion tips worthy of the most intrepid Amway prospector: “It’s the first week of school. There’ll be flocks of new students. Now’s the time to win them. Speak to their hearts. Then, even if they don’t accept Jesus, they’ll still feel like they have to listen because you’re their friend.” Will Steve make it to the priesthood? Do we really give a you-know-what?

Mike is a nice young man with an adorable and adoring sweetheart, Aly. Mike sincerely desires to serve God but isn’t sure if the priesthood is the way for him to do it. Of course, like any good sexually screwed-up Catholic, Mike is a virgin who’s “saving” sex for marriage and considers his “lustful” desires for Aly “sick and disgusting.”

Undoubtedly, so does Mike’s spiritual advisor, Fr. Pauselli, one of those creepy priests who keeps the church’s bad name alive and well. Fr. Pauselli is basically an evil queen with an obvious agenda. He’s taken Mike under his wing and guards him like a hawk. Not unexpectedly, Fr. Pauselli hates Aly and acts like a jealous two-year old when she’s around. Unlike a good spiritual advisor, who is there to listen and guide, Fr. Pauselli uses every insidious form of subterfuge to influence Mike’s decision, from guilt (“Your father would be very happy to have you become a priest. So would your grandparents”) to the old bargaining ploy so handy for cheating prelates (“Do you have to have a wife? If you become a priest, Aly can still be your friend...”). The big question now is not “Will Mike choose Aly or the priesthood?” but “Will Mike have the guts to wrestle out of Fr. Pauselli’s nefarious clutches?”

By far the most revolting member of the Fab Four is Daniel. Armed with enough smugness to make George W. Bush look like the incarnation of humility, Daniel leads youth groups into abortion clinics chanting the rosary, visits strip clubs with his buddies to pray for the sinners within, and basically grins his way to God. He lives with “the brothers,” a group of self-righteous young celibates like himself, and basks in the glory of showing other young people how to live “a virtuous life.” This is a fascinating, compelling character? Wake me up when it’s over.

The real common denominator among all of our aspiring young priests, however, seems to be an unquenchable desire for attention. Joe confesses that he went into seminary to feel “unique and special.” When Steve makes the Big Announcement to his frat brothers that he’s going to become a priest and a celibate, he’s fairly shaking with the excitement of being the center of attention. Getting off on the thrill of choosing God or the Girl, low-key Mike becomes a veritable drama queen.

But the most blatant display of unbridled egomania comes, of course, from Daniel, who simply cannot control his ecstasy when his spiritual advisor, Fr. Jeff, suggests that he build a cross just like Jesus’ and carry it on his back 20 miles through the Ohio hinterlands, in order to really know Our Lord through and through.

Now, I’m not at all sure I would take the advice of a spiritual advisor who looks like a hybrid of Jesse Ventura and Uncle Fester, and who, with his big, fat stomach, couldn’t carry Jesus’ cross 20 feet. But Daniel doesn’t need to be told twice.

He and his buddies have lots of fun at the lumberyard, finding the appropriate cuts of wood. They clown around in the hardware store, looking for nails and tools. They laugh as they hammer the cross together, and Daniel has a real ball trying it out on the floor, joking around with the guys as he lies in cruciform position.

And then, the journey to Calvary! The cross is loaded onto the boys’ SUV. At the starting point, Daniel hoists a daunting hundred pounds of wood onto his shoulders and starts walking, the guys and Fr. Jeff solemnly accompanying him like Christ’s disciples. Pretty soon Daniel is groaning and grunting, but when, after a few miles, Fr. Jeff insists that he allow them to share his burden, Daniel refuses. “I love it!” he says. “I love the sacrifice!” Translation: I love the ATTENTION I’m getting, not just from you guys and everybody who’s staring at me as they drive by, but from MILLIONS OF VIEWERS!”

And that’s what it’s all about. Let’s face it: “God or the Girl” is staged drama, just like every other “reality” show. Posed twaddle descends into spiritual commercialism. Four boring guys get handsomely paid to glory in undeserved stardom. Will Mike choose Aly or the church? Will Steve take his vows? Will Jesus Daniel Christ tote his cross the full 20 miles? Will Joe shit or get off the pot? Who cares? Why don’t they all just become Episcopalians? That way they can have God and the girl and that will be the end of the nonsense.

Something tells me God would approve.

 

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Contributing editor Mary Beth Crain's last piece for SoMA was An Accident of Mirth.

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