A few years ago, Deitrick Haddon – son of a preacher, a gospel music star and a preacher himself – fled his Detroit home and ministry for Los Angeles and a “war against God.”
“I was wilding out,” he recalled in a recent interview. “You name it, I did it. Strip clubs, drinking, things that were completely out of my character.”
He had recently split from his wife and was beginning to feel the sting of backlash from his fellow Christians. His concerts were canceled.
“You don’t expect that the same people that you helped and encouraged to treat you that way,” he said. Soon, he’d impregnated his new girlfriend. The wheels were coming off.
Out of the blue, he received a call from an old friend and fellow preacher, Zachery Tims, who had publicly discussed many of his own struggles.
“I began to pour out my heart,” Haddon said.
“People need to know the truth about us men,” he told Tims. “We need to do a reality show about stuff like this.”
Tims agreed. A few weeks later, Tims succumbed to a drug overdose in a New York hotel room.
“I was so consumed with my issue that I couldn’t hear him,” Haddon said regretfully.
The urge toward transparency stuck with him, though, and that conversation eventually gave birth to “Preachers of L.A.,” one of last year’s most invigorating and surprising reality television debuts and now in its second season on Oxygen. New episodes air at 10 p.m. Wednesdays.
Structurally, “Preachers” works familiar territory: a cast of similar but not too similar individuals who experience friction but have little concern about expressing it in front of cameras. But the cast – all men of the cloth – is unique, and the squabbles are usually faith based. As with the most engrossing reality television, everyone believes strongly that his side of the argument is the right one.
Unlike other shows, though, all the stars here believe they come by that position divinely. This automatically raises the stakes of every confrontation. Often, participants on reality shows of this kind only have celebrity as an end goal, but here, the stars are putting their moral standing on the line. It’s riveting to watch, and fascinating to see how these men inhabit similar positions in such varying ways. Clarence McLendon is theatrically smooth and impervious to critique. Noel Jones has what appears to be a long-term girlfriend, but adamantly refuses to discuss their relationship, or to make it official.
Haddon is by far the least risk-averse of the cast members (and also the only one who is an executive producer). He is at the center of most of the flare-ups, plenty of times happily lighting the match. He is also the one undergoing the most life change, marrying his girlfriend last season and having a second baby this season.
“This is not the Word Network, this is not the Christian Broadcasting Network,” he said, talking about how he described the show to his cast mates. Those channels go out of their way to portray their subjects in a positive light. In most faith-based entertainment, there is little room for dissent, or internal struggle that isn’t neatly resolved by believing hard enough.
But “Preachers” advances the idea that everyone is flawed, even those who are relied on by thousands of followers for divine guidance.
“That’s the power of the gospel,” Haddon said. “Sometimes, you have to bless others as you’re bleeding.”
“I knew that it was going to be a shift in the church culture,” Haddon said. “It would make people flow with us or buck up against us. Now, people are saying: ‘We can’t beat these guys, we might as well join them. It’s going to release me out of the prison of perfection that these people put me in.’ ”
With its ratings success, averaging more than 1 million total viewers per episode, the show is already planning spinoffs, seeking subjects for versions set in New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Detroit. Now that “Preachers” is a known entity, though, casting is more complicated.
Some preachers sign on right away, said Holly Carter, one of the show’s executive producers. But others “are not comfortable with transparency, showing their humanity,” she added. “They like the pedestal, and they will stay up there as long as they can.”
“Preachers” goes hand in hand with recent facade-cracking in gospel music, as seen in TV shows about performers like “The Sheards” (BET) and the visceral “Mary Mary” (WE). There also is “Preachers’ Daughters,” on Lifetime, which is about exactly what the title suggests: how easily even a spiritually strong family can rupture when confronted with a young woman going through the flush of puberty.
Crucially, none of these shows are on historically Christian channels. Mainstream networks “are realizing the faith-based audience is a proven measurable audience,” said Lemuel Plummer, one of the executive producers of “Preachers of L.A.” and a veteran of “Mary Mary” and “The Sheards.”
But producers have to be mindful of the mainstream’s rules. “We’re very aware of what it takes to keep the attention of the viewers,” Haddon said. “I’m aware of that, and I govern myself accordingly. People love to see all that drama, man. I understand that. So I let it go, and I hope the outcome is great. You’ll never get us going to blows. We’re not ratchet.”
In the first season, often it seemed as if Haddon were on his own show, trying to bring the other preachers – Jones, McClendon, Jay Haizlip, Wayne Chaney and Ron Gibson – to his level of transparency. That first season, scenes depicting the preachers ministering directly to followers were among the show’s weakest and most staged, and somehow were less spiritually convincing then the direct tension among the cast members.
“Originally, I think they didn’t understand the full spectrum of what we were doing,” he said. “But this season, they’re bringing it.” And this season, the preachers’ wives and girlfriends are taking on larger roles, generating their own circle of tension.
Structured conflict is the engine of so much reality TV, but “Preachers” and shows like it run the risk that in the service of that drama, the message will be lost.
“If at some point there was a decision to just be messy, that would be for me something I would not want to continue with,” said LaVette Gibson, Ron’s wife and the first lady of his church. “That’s not who I am.”
Carter, the executive producer, said that Oxygen promised that it “will never try to create train-wreck television out of these guys.”