‘The Sisterhood’ is more religious entertainment than reality TV

“The Sisterhood” is a new reality show on TLC about pastors’ wives in Atlanta. The city is the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ministry and the show promises a rare window into the lives of several “first ladies.”

So far — we’re four episodes in, halfway through the inaugural season — a pastor has given his spouse a pair of handcuffs, a first lady has pointed out the first house where she smoked crack and there’s been a nice chat about sexually transmitted diseases.

(TLC) - From left to right: Christina Murray, DeLana Rutherford, Tara Lewis, Ivy Couch, Domonique Scott on “The Sisterhood.”

Can we get a fan in the first pew? This is so not mama’s sweet hour of prayer.

Quick, let’s sample the flavor.

Here are spouses and co-pastors Brian and Tara Lewis. He was raised Jewish, but now preaches evangelical Christianity. Tara was “an adulterer” in a previous marriage (we know because she held up a big sign by the road saying so), but is now a super-fit mom who is given to wearing, say, a hot little purple number with a big “Jesus” belt.

The couple say they had to leave their new church shortly after arriving from Los Angeles. They tell their fellow castmates, on camera, that they’ve decided to launch a national television ministry. Tara, for her part, is described on her “Momfit” Web site as a “Global Television Personality, Mompreneur, Published Author, Certified Fitness Instructor, Certified Sports Nutritionist, Pastor, TV Host, and Très Chic Passionista, best known for her radiant beauty and Southern charm.”

Somehow this Career of Awesomeness does not impress her compatriots.

“I’m not sure what [her] show is going to look like,” Domonique Scott, the first lady who was the drug addict, tells the camera. “But I’m always up for a good laugh.”

You may have guessed by now that “The Sisterhood” is less about reality — “it’s definitely entertainment,” says Wendy Douglas, the show’s senior director of production — and more about a spicy pseudo-reveal on one of society’s most visible but least understood unelected positions.

Douglas says that, like other TLC shows, be they about people who talk to the dead (“Long Island Medium”) or the Amish (“ Breaking Amish”), “The Sisterhood” delves into a subculture everybody has heard of but doesn’t know much about. Religious faith is “a space in culture that people don’t talk about a lot in reality shows, and I think we’ve broken some new ground,” she says.

That’s true, the show’s observers say, but whether or not it’s ground that needed this kind of tilling is another matter.

None of these first ladies are at major denominational churches, such as Baptist, Catholic, Episcopalian or Methodist. Instead, they’re all at what are loosely known as “prosperity churches,” with names like the Oasis Family Life Church, Emmanuel Tabernacle, Work with Wonders and The Good Life Ministry. Two of the couples were between churches during filming.

Three of the five first ladies are black (one is white and one is Latina), giving the show a predominantly black viewpoint, and not everyone is thrilled about the portrayals. First ladies at historically black churches are particularly high-profile positions, with an emphasis on social standing, decorum and, well, class.

Sophia A. Nelson spent six months working on a story in the current edition of Essence Magazine about the private lives of first ladies. She says those women are in a sometimes claustrophobic social niche with a challenging set of unwritten rules of conduct that cover every aspect of their lives.

“There is a code among these ladies, and that’s why [the show] is so off the mark,” says Nelson, the author of “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” “They would never go on TV and talk about their sex lives. They’d rather die than put out that imagery.”

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees but is mostly amused, in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. In the African American religious tradition, she says, there are the historic leaders and intellectuals. And there was also Rev. Ike, the televangelist who exhorted his followers to “close their eyes and see green” — as in cash.

“I’d call it religious entertainment,” she says. “It’s ‘Elmer Gantry’ in a dress. They’re kind of grifting.”

Cast member Ivy Couch, the recipient of the handcuffs, is a Spelman College graduate with a degree in English. She’s a little bit impatient with the idea that the cast is — how to say this — trifling.

She offers the handcuff incident as a case in point.

They were filming on Father’s Day last year, she says, and on camera she gave her husband, Mark, several gifts. He surprised her with several gag gifts in return, including a white T-shirt, hunting gear and the handcuffs, as part of an inside joke about things he knew she wouldn’t use, she says. But after editing, the only thing that’s shown is him giving her the handcuffs, with the implication they’re part of sexual play.

“If we had portrayed a typical Christian church’s pastor and first lady, no one would be watching,” Couch says. “What I love is it’s getting people who wouldn’t ordinarily go to church to watch the show. God can sneak up on you like that.”

For her part, Tara Lewis is letting people know she is not pleased with her portrayal. At one point in a 49-minute “Special Commentary from Star Pastor Tara Lewis” on YouTube, Brian, her husband, asks how she feels about the show so far.

“It sucks,” she says.

Brian is also miffed about the insinuation that he might be gay. He takes to the camera to cheerfully say, “ I’m going to say not now, nor have I ever been, nor will I ever be gay. And if I wasn’t married and I wasn’t a Christian and I was in the world, I would think this would be an awesome opportunity to prove to all the fine sisters out there how not gay I really am. Hallelujah!”

Woo. Stay tuned.

“The Sisterhood”

airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on TLC.

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