God or the Girl (A&E, Sunday at 9 p.m. ET) is a five-episode nonfiction series about young men deciding whether to devote their lives to the Catholic priesthood or to take a path that people here sum up as “the married life.” It’s only 1 percent as crass as it could be, and one can imagine the alternatives. On a reality show titled Who Wants To Taste the Pleasures of the Flesh? or Defrock’d!, our former altar boys would attempt to fend off the advances of, say, kittenish human-resource specialists who recruit them for jobs in finance while slipping Ecstasy in their breakfasts. Each week, another contestant would get expelled from the seminary (“Steve, you’ve been damned”). Someday, Fox willing, this will come to pass. Until then, this earnest exploration of the calling to God will suffice.
The show profiles a quartetof middle-Americans. Joe has already dropped out of seminary twice. At the beginning of the show, we see him, at age 28, bringing his dirty laundry back to his mom’s place in Cleveland. His folks influence his thinking about the priesthood perhaps too heavily. You get this idea watching his mother call him selfish for considering other career options and also when you hear him say that he doesn’t want to be celibate. Yet Joe’s retreat from the dating world might be a favor to women: When he goes to see the pope at World Youth Day in Germany, he waits three days before getting in touch with a local girl he’s sweet on. “I think we had a communication problem,” he says. “I didn’t call her.”
Dan, 21, is a sophomore at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. He has one of those haircuts that only college students wear, a lump of limp curls seen bouncing in time to ska. He lives in a house with nine other devout young men. It’s a fraternity, he says, “but our brotherhood is founded on Christ, not on how wasted we can get.” (Could this be the world’s only frat house with a floral-print sofa?) Dan regularly prays the Rosary in front of abortion clinics and strip clubs. Told to blow out the candles of his birthday cake and make a wish, he says, “Wishes are for pagans.” To test his fitness for the priesthood, he assembles an 80-pound cross and carries it 22 miles.
Steve, 25, is a veteran of one of those fraternities founded on how wasted you can get. He frets about how to break it to the boys back at UVA that he ditched his job as a consultant to become a campus missionary in Lincoln, Neb. And if a trip to Charlottesville tests the nerves of this thin-skinned preppy, how will he respond to a visit to a mission in Guatemala? Would he better serve the Lord by making piles of money and giving them away? The fourth subject is Mike, 24, a charismatic youth minister from Scranton. He loves his girlfriend, Aly, very much, but the couple made a pact to put God first. Mike’s parish priest is plainly jealous of her. Aly says that she and Mike “always joke around that [the priest] doesn’t like me.” Ha ha.
The main problem with this brief series it that it goes baggy in the middle as each of the men embarks on some quest or test. Mike spends a meditative weekend at a retreat; Dan turns his shoulders raw bearing his cross; Joe leaves his wallet at home and takes a pilgrimage to a monastery near Niagara Falls. The creators could have relayed the same insights in half the time. The pacing is nearly amateurish, as are the production values and design. Yet it’s to the show’s advantage that it’s cheaply lit and cheesily scored and that, in the interview segments, there’s always a crucifix or Pietà in the background lest you forget what the topic is. God or the Girl is so thoroughly lacking in slickness that it must be sincere.
These would-be priests are without guile, and the producers have dramatized their introspection such that it’s easy to get absorbed in their wants and needs, to root for them to find themselves. Some of the guys are on the case of a true calling while others are knuckling under to pressure or retreating from the world. The show is an odd-colored Easter egg, an intimate examination of spiritual truth.