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The Sisterhood

The basic premise and appeal of TLC’s The Sisterhood is entirely summed up in one of the first scenes: It’s Father’s Day at Pastor Mark Couch’s house. The happy couple sits at breakfast; their baby boy is perched, giggling, in his high chair. Mark turns to his wife Ivy and hands her his Father’s Day present to her. She has given him a pair of cufflinks with crosses on them. He gives her a pair of handcuffs. Mark, the pastor of the Emmanuel Tabernacle Church in Atlanta, then requests that he’d like his wife to wear the handcuffs—and only the handcuffs—tonight, at which point he will give her “the best nine-and-a-half minutes of her life.” This is from the man who states this in his official ministry biography: “Pastor Couch is married to his wife Ivy Couch, and they have a thriving little boy, Mark Allen Couch II. Recently they prayerfully accepted the assignment that God called them to, to represent the black family and the inner workings of ministry, on a new groundbreaking nationally syndicated reality series to be aired on the TLC network.”

This heady combination of the moral high ground and the moral low ground is what TLC offers in its latest foray into reality programming, the Atlanta-based Sisterhood. The sisters in question are the collection of preachers’ wives in Atlanta—women who refer to themselves as “First Ladies” of their respective churches, who take their role as model Christian wives and mothers very, very seriously. Part of the novelty of the show is looking into the lives of these women at all—women who have extremely different ideas of what it means to be at the head of a congregation, but behind their husband, who is the spiritual leader of the ministry. The result is a show that is at times highly relatable to the average viewer—a few pastors have lost their jobs due to financial trouble, for example—and at times wildly beyond anyone’s regular scope—such as the debate over whether or not to start a career in television evangelism.

TLC has the capacity to create fantastic television. Witness the oddly addictive Say Yes To The Dress, the wildly popular Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, and the perennial classic What Not To Wear. It may not be the reality-TV powerhouse that is Bravo, but TLC has a knack for creating shows are often both some of the trashiest and some of the most socioeconomically diverse programming on air. The narrative imperative here is what we might charitably call “the average American,” and what less charitably could be referred to as “the lowest common denominator.” Who cares? It's great. Usually, it’s a strange kind of voyeurism, where we all engage in watching what we think our neighbors might be up to. TLC has that niche cornered. Their reality programming skirts a boundary between exploitation and entertainment; every now and again, sometimes by accident, it veers towards documentary. 

There is a universe in which The Sisterhood could be a great addition to TLC’s lineup, but this is not that universe. Unfortunately, the show has no idea what it’s trying to be. On one hand, it wants to reveal the secret, “sinful” lives of the First Ladies—their history with crack cocaine, their troubled marriages, their breast implants. It wants to show us their lipstick and high heels and hair weaves. It also wants to show us their infighting and passive-aggressive competition, especially toward Tara, a new preacher’s wife in Atlanta.

But the crucial problem here is that the show is not quite sure whether or not it wants its viewership to revile the casually superficial preacher’s wives, or to instead relate to them. As a result, the tone is entirely inconsistent—TLC’s classically understated soundtrack drops in “happy” music and “angry” music seemingly at random, leaving the viewer unclear as to who we are supposed to be disliking or sympathizing with, and indeed, what we are supposed to care about. (Partly, it seems, this is because the show’s taken on such a lightning rod, by looking into evangelical churches, that it can’t really choose a side without angering pretty much everybody.)

Honestly, the most interesting story is in fact the enormously under-covered lives of religious Christians in America—the ins and outs of church politics, the community and mission of these pastors and their ministries, and the fundamentally non-ironic, unchallenged belief in God that guides so many American lives. The Sisterhood kind of starts out revealing this life, by visiting the families at their churches and noting the religious language that drops into even the most mundane conversations in these homes. But it quickly derails, shifting from that feminine voyeurism about makeup to the day-to-day drama of teaching Christina’s kids about sexuality or watching Domonique and her husband struggle with divorce. It’s an entirely reasonable reality show B-plot, but the premiere meanders through the storylines and gets a little lost in the weeds. The episode starts strong but trails off, lacking either a strong climactic moment or a single narrative arc. All of the montage-y production at the end at the beginning, the teasers for what is to come in the rest of the season, looks pretty interesting, but so much of it makes it into the premiere—and so much is repeated!—that it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the season.

If this show were going to make it anywhere, it would be based on the utter reprehensibility of two of the main characters, Tara and Brian. It’s not so much that Tara and Brian are terrible people, and more that they are straight-up crazy. They come into the show as newcomers to Atlanta from L.A., a preacher family without a congregation. Tara is a tall, beautiful woman who calls herself “black Barbie,” and Brian is a born-again Jewish man, who apparently converted once he met Tara (God told her that the two of them would travel the world and preach the gospel). There is something off about these two—a sentiment shared not just by the audience but by the other First Ladies, who whisper to each other that there’s something strange about a family who gets fired from a church after six weeks, who has had cops come to their house to break up domestic disturbances, who has been disowned by both of their families. These things would all be understandable if it weren’t for the uncomfortable fact that Tara and Brian are incredibly socially awkward, somehow managing to find the most offensive or inappropriate thing to drop into the conversation—whether it’s Brian waxing poetic about how sexy he finds his wife, or Tara dropping her interpretation of the Scripture on Ivy and Domonique, or Brian claiming that Jews were the “original blacks.” These two are reality television gold—they create drama just by existing. But they’re not terribly sympathetic. If anything, their dedication to a mission of television evangelism (or something?) is so obscure as to sound alien. The other families come across as relatable American families. Tara and Brian appear to be from another planet.

Should The Sisterhood choose to focus on some of the stabler wives, with their entirely reasonable concerns about maintaining a religious household, it might have serious legs as it goes forward. It will need to make a decision to either keep or jettison the weird, off-tone voyeurism, and to further figure out how to integrate Tara and Brian into the cast. Most of all, it will have to decide how it feels about its characters. It’s easy enough to crowd a bunch of working-class Jersey kids into a beach house and make them look entertainingly silly. It’s another to take on life in the embrace of the church. TLC may have bitten off more than they can chew, here.

In theory, this premise could be gangbusters. There’s something very appealing about the inner lives of these semi-public community figures, as well as a refreshing sense of true mission.  But the series is still finding its voice, and the result is a mess—and not even a particularly enjoyable one, at that.

Stray observations:

  • The kids on this show are all really, really adorable. Tara’s daughter Tahari? Mark and Ivy’s baby? OMG. Christina’s two teenage girls have great camera personality, too! TLC, you’re overlooking an incredible opportunity: THE CHILDHOOD
  • These women all have great hair (except for maybe Ivy).
  • For an apparently progressive biracial couple, Tara and Brian say something insensitive about race every 30 seconds or so. It’s a little confusing.
  • “Litmus test.” “Litmih who?” “Littmins?” “I don’t need no test.”