The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns is the anti-reality show reality show. It’s not anti-reality but anti-what we’ve come to know (and enjoy) about the reality genre. There is absolutely no sex or drugs or alcohol. No one is hooking up — any relationships are ended during the first few minutes of the pilot episode, as the girls must remain celibate — and there is not a single man in sight. The cast lives in a peaceful environment where catfights are against the rules. The girls are not competing against each other to find a husband but working together as they all prepare to give themselves to Jesus. The Sisterhood is only technically a reality show, which makes it inherently interesting, but it does slip into reality clichés every once in a while, which allows it to remain compelling to those with no interest in the religious aspects of the show. It sort of works.
Lifetime’s The Sisterhood follows five young women in their 20s during their six weeks of discernment, as they live in a convent and decide whether they will ultimately follow their calling to become nuns or give up and go home. It’s a very strange show, one that values all of the virtues that television usually ignores in favor of exploring vices. It should, by all accounts, be a very boring program — the pilot includes a short montage of the girls putting on their new, nun-like uniforms: buttoning up a collared shirt, kissing a cross necklace, straightening a navy-blue headband — but it somehow isn’t, which is in itself intriguing.
It’s impossible to understand what is going through these girls’ minds, and particularly their intense devotion to God. They are leaving behind their families, their friends, and in some cases, the boyfriends who they love. But what’s most interesting is the juxtaposition between the religion and the reality show — the jarring disconnect between the pious setting with dedicated nuns and the occasionally dramatic young women who are willingly thrust into this new world, and who bring the reality show theatrics with them.
The good thing about the series is that it doesn’t rely on the dramatic moments to push the story forward; it just lets them happen and then moves on to the quiet reflections, the masses, the scenes of these awestruck girls praying together for the first time. But the other moments are still there: 21-year-old Francesca is horrified when she learns she isn’t allowed to wear makeup (she’s insecure about her acne) and nearly has a panic attack, sobbing and asking, “Would Jesus make me take my makeup off?” Twenty-three-year-old Eseni, who leaves her boyfriend in an emotional scene at the beginning of the series, is dreading the day the nuns make her remove the brightly colored nails she’s just had done, and is most hesitant to give up her phone. (Phones are a distraction, according to the nuns, and the girls must be free of distractions during this six-week stay; apparently the cameras, crew, microphones, and interview segments are not nearly as distracting.)
Much of what makes The Sisterhood: Becoming Nuns so watchable is that it never lets you forget that these young women are just that: young women. They are different from you and I in that they are wholly devoted to the Lord, to the extent that they’re willing to give up everything else, but they also regularly slip into their pre-convent selves. Christie, 27, admits to being a huge flirt and says that becoming a nun is pretty much the only thing that will keep her single. One of the most enthusiastic girls, upon spotting her new uniform, remarks that it’s got a “dope” cross.
There aren’t any men around for the women (or the series) to objectify, so the romantic attention turns toward Jesus (a memorable segment involves one of the potential sisters waxing poetic about her dreams in which Jesus is flirting with her, and their upcoming nuptials). As 26-year-old Stacey stands up her framed photo of Jesus, she says it’s her favorite picture because it’s “handsome surfer Jesus handing out his heart.” She doesn’t mind giving everything up for “this really gorgeous man.” (The Sisterhood‘s “This season on…” preview also includes the girls calling Jesus “the best boyfriend ever” and “the ultimate lover,” while Eseni asks a nun, “What do you think of twerking?” because she learned how to twerk before entering the convent and that’s one of her primary concerns.)
The Sisterhood doesn’t make a mockery of, well, the sisterhood — which is especially surprising considering that the network it’s on, Lifetime, is known for making a mockery of just about everything. But The Sisterhood respects both the girls and the Sisters in the convent, and is judgement free. The Sisters come off as friendly but stern, occasionally frustrated — “Get a grip. It’s not all about you,” one nun says in her interview segment — but overall patient and understanding. (“They are products of their environment,” the latter Sister eventually concludes.) They are supportive because they’re well aware that this one of the toughest decisions these girls will ever have to make. After all, they have all gone through the same thing.
It’s an unfathomable sacrifice to most, this dedication of your entire life to the church, and that’s what makes The Sisterhood both a fascinating watch and an illuminating amateur sociology project. As a docuseries, it succeeds because it wants to shed light on the subjects, not exploit them.