A lay Catholic man watches “The Sisterhood”

There are some spoilers in this review.

I’m a lay, single Catholic man, which is probably not the target audience of “The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns,” now airing on Lifetime, a network I don’t watch (I don’t even have cable). Still, my journalist instincts tell me I should watch this; it is an important show for Catholics for multiple reasons:

  1. It’s a mainstream reality show set in the Catholic world, and it appears there will be at least an effort to treat the subjects with respect.
  2. There are a lot of ways this could go wrong.
  3. There aren’t a lot of positive portrayals of Catholicism in the media, period, these days.
  4. The female religious life is struggling in the U.S. and could use a boost, especially in young women, as most orders are aging. Now, how many young nuns do you know? I know one (the lovely Sister Alicia Torres, ministering on the West Side of Chicago, where I really should pay her a visit). Most of you probably know zero. How many older nuns do you know? You may know a few. Some nuns who taught me in grade school are still alive, so there’s that.

So I [ugh] got the Lifetime channel added on my Roku (it doesn’t stream live, only offers on-demand episodes), and watched the first episode the day after it aired, then again after I said goodbye to my Thanksgiving visitors. Here are my thoughts — a note that one of the cast members, Claire, is a friend of one of my sisters and I’ve met her a couple times.

(Photo credit: Lifetime.)

(Photo credit: Lifetime.)

 

Backstory: Ah, the humble backstory. It’s the way you hurriedly introduce people to characters when you don’t have the luxury of time. They quickly introduce us to all of the young women, and they’re pretty effective. We quickly pick up on both the joys and insecurities of each, and as it turns out, each cast member starts out as relatable, which doesn’t always happen. Good start.

Fish out of water! The first episode smartly (if not entirely true to real discernment) compels the ladies to dump some of the worldly joys (phones, makeup, fashionable clothes), which is some pretty clear symbolism — that’s the sort of thing you have to do for any vocation, but it seems especially true at a convent. I can’t really relate to Francesca’s makeup meltdown, since I don’t wear makeup, but I get the underlying concern; it wasn’t about the makeup for her. On the bright side, the ladies gracefully work their way through it instead of holding it against her.

Nuns do, indeed, rock. You see holy women whose religious life has truly transformed them. The Carmelites in episode 1 radiate joy, holiness, and wisdom. And they’d quickly redirect it back toward God. They’re the actual stars here.

Does it matter if any of these women become nuns? No. Really, the “decision” at the end of the show is artificial and most everyone seems to get that. That’s not the point. The point is that an aspect of the Catholic Church that largely has been unseen is being presented. That’s a grace that could have all sorts of beneficial effects.

So, is this show any good? There are a few compelling storylines so far: Eseni’s boyfriend back home storyline is pretty clearly top of the heap and one that even the sisters were relating to easily. The nuns make a uniformly positive impression. It looks like the discerning women are unlikely themselves to have major clashes (politely disagree, perhaps), so it seems the conflict will be largely internal. But, as everyone seems to realize, the internal conflict is kinda forced; the actual discernment process takes much longer. That’s going to be a problem, if not a fatal flaw, as the show rolls on, and there’s a serious chance the show’s going to sputter out. Episode 1: solid but unspectacular. After that, we’ll have to see.

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