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'The Monastery': A Cloistered Reality Series


From NPR News, it's DAY TO DAY. Benedictine monks have led lives of tranquility and solitude for centuries. Now The Monastery is a new reality TV series premiering tonight on the TLC cable network. Cameras capture what happens when five men go to live in a New Mexico monastery. But will The Monastery capture your attention? Here's TV critic Andrew Wallenstein.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN: So how's this for group therapy? Five troubled men join 30 monks for 40 days and nights, much of it spent in silence. Every day they wake up before 4 a.m. for five hours of prayer broken into eight separate services. For centuries, we're told, it's this kind of rigorous regimen that brings some closer to God.

And while viewers should expect vicarious divine dialogue, I consider this outstanding series a revelation. I've never seen a TV show explore spiritual issues in such a compelling fashion. The monks at New Mexico's Christ in the Desert are a fascinating bunch. It doesn't seem they see converts as much as they want to relay how their seemingly incomprehensible lifestyle is the road to enlightenment.

In this scene, Brother Andre lays down the rules to that for the new arrivals.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Monastery")

Brother ANDRE (Benedictine Monk): So we're going to have you live like monks for 40 days, do everything that we do more or less, okay? During the day there's certain places we cannot talk. You don't talk in a refectory, because all the meals are in silence. You don't talk down in the cloister, you know, where you live. You don't talk in the corridors. Of course, you don't talk in church, that's common sense.

Unidentified Man #1 (Monastery Guest): Can you talk in your room?

Brother ANDRE: You're not supposed to have visitors in your room. A room is your cell. Like a prison cell. Okay? That's where the word comes from, your cell.

WALLENSTEIN: The Monastery does an incredible casting job, finding five broken souls just sympathetic enough to root for their redemption. Among them are Alex, a rebellious young Iraqi war veteran who lost his left leg and any sense of religious faith to a firefight in Fallujah.

And there's John, a jaded paramedic whose own experience in the Marines bonds him with Alex. In this scene, Alex and John discuss their experience at the monastery while working the fields.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Monastery")

Unidentified Man #2 (Monastery Guest): It's eight hours a day in church. I don't see how that's going to make me...

Unidentified Man #3 (Monastery Guest): He said you gotta...

Unidentified Man #2: ...religious.

Unidentified Man #3: ...find like your own kind of God. Is that what he's talking about?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: Well, my kind of God don't think you need to be in here for eight hours a day, chanting.

Unidentified Man #2: So you going to start singing?

Unidentified Man #3: No.

Unidentified Man #2: No?

Unidentified Man #3: Not any time soon.

Unidentified Man #2: I don't know if I could sit here for 40 days without buying into it. A little.

WALLENSTEIN: If there's a problem with this series, it's this: as well as we get to know these troubled outsiders, the monks remain a mystery. I wanted to know more about what drew each of them to this life, to have an even bigger question answered. Why on earth did they open their doors to TV cameras?

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this series is the way it overcomes how visually and sonically static the environment is in which they're shooting. Not much happens in the monastery, but the filmmakers make the claustrophobic setting come alive with strong camerawork and voiceovers rich in insight.

Will men like Alex and John, who couldn't seem less suited to monastatic life, find religion? Or might they even tempt a monk to venture back to the real world? Even at its most basic level, The Monastery can be enjoyed as a suspenseful thriller. But at a deeper level, The Monastery raises profound questions about life in a place that strips away its modern trappings.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein reviewed TLC's new series, The Monastery. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Wallenstein
Andrew Wallenstein is the television critic for NPR's Day to Day. He is also an editor at The Hollywood Reporter, where he covers television and digital media out of Los Angeles. Wallenstein is also the co-host of the weekly TV Guide Channel series Square Off. His essay on Holocaust films was published in Best Jewish Writing 2003 (Jossey-Bass), and he has also written for The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week. He has a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.