In their zeal for attention, unscripted cable series are close to becoming the programs that cried wolf — so much so that the rare laudable concept is routinely lumped in with dreck like TLC’s “Honey We’re Killing the Kids.” So it is with A&E’s “God or the Girl,” a horribly cheesy title that evokes images of “Let’s Make a Deal,” with a lifetime of celibacy waiting behind Door No. 2. In fact, the provocative moniker is strictly a marketing come-on, as this five-hour, three-part doc takes a sober look at young men deciding whether to join the priesthood.
Indeed, even the Easter week scheduling reflects A&E’s rope-a-dope strategy, figuring that possible complaints, protests and outrage — even if misdirected — are cheaper promotional tools than Times Square billboards. And the sad fact is, they’re probably right.
Yet far from the gameshow flippancy the title suggests, “God or the Girl” is a reasonably straight documentary (albeit with a degree of manipulation), focusing on four twentysomething guys with an abiding passion for their religion. And unlike most reality shows, they’re even allowed to have last names.
The oldest, 28-year-old Joe Adair, travels to Germany in the premiere for a World Youth Day event, where he hopes to both celebrate his Catholicism and reconnect with Anna, a German girl with whom he’s developed a long-distance relationship. In almost cliched movie fashion (think “Saturday Night Fever”), his mother would love for him to enter the clergy, but he’s not so sure.
Mike Leshniak, too, has a steady girlfriend, raising questions about whether he’ll sacrifice that for the sake of the church. Steve Horvath, meanwhile, seeks out former college friends, fearing they’ll be dismissive about his choice to become a priest.
Finally, there’s Dan DeMatte, 21, who is so infused with religious fervor that he leads his youth group in a protest outside an abortion clinic — yielding a pointed exchange with pro-choice advocates. It’s a particularly thorny area, one the producers for the most part document without engaging in tacit judgments on either side.
After the Catholic Church’s image woes regarding pedophilic priests, “God or the Girl” plays like a commercial for the clergy, inasmuch as these earnest youths feel deeply devoted to God — ideal candidates to become priests, despite their understandable misgivings about swearing off sex and marriage, not necessarily in that order.
Unfortunately, A&E’s credibility in the genre is iffy at best, with a track record that includes “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” “Growing Up Gotti” and the exploitative drug-abuse show “Intervention.” Couple that with the title, scheduling and overheated promotion (“Who will rise? Who will fall?”), and a production that deserves better risks being trivialized.
Too many deeply religious folk already harbor a persecution complex when it comes to their depiction in the media. It would be a shame if “God or the Girl” adds to that sense of distrust simply because A&E’s tendency to sensationalize has left them unable to distinguish the forest from the trees.