The Messengers,” a new eight-part series on The Learning Channel featuring 10 of the nation’s up-and coming inspirational speakers, left me somewhat less than inspired. In the premiere episode, the contestants are left to live for 24 hours on L.A.’s skid row, after which they are given a few minutes to expound upon the night’s chosen topic in front of the voting, studio audience. This aspirational American Idol has its own panel of judges: Richard Greene, a communication coach dubbed “The Master of Charisma” by the Sunday Times (UK), and Robert V. Shuller, pastor of emergent ministries of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries. The winning “messenger” will be rewarded with a publishing contract and a television special on TLC.

The show attempts to establish a sense of gravitas with its opening montage of Buddhist monks praying, rabbis reading from the Torah, and yogis practicing their craft to the tune of Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus,” as interpreted by the late Johnny Cash. The contestants range from an ex-Raiderette cheerleader turned spiritual seeker to several Christian pastors.

We never really got to know the contestants before they were taken to skid row, and so watching them try to connect with the homeless felt prurient and almost exploitive, in a way. As one angry woman said when a contestant approached her, “Get your hands off me! We don’t have homes… you do! I’ve been on the streets since I was 11 year old.”

Back in the studio, we hear each person’s take on that night’s topic of “charity.” Both the pastors, Robert Rutherford and Darryl Van Leer, do very well, and Angelica Osborne, the quirky apartment manager from Alabama, is clearly a front-runner. Platitudes were abundant (“Charity is not what I can do for this homeless man, but what he can do for me.”), but there were also some lovely turns of phrases and some truly engaging deliveries. I was disappointed, however, that we didn’t get to see the full speeches of at least three contestants, including Iman Mafi, a Muslim youth lecturer, and Zahava Zaidoff, a former Orthodox Jew, and that their deliveries were so short.

I wholeheartedly agree with panelist Greene that rhetoric is quickly becoming a lost art, although I might not go as far as to say that it’s “important for the soul of our country.” Then again, I’m not “The Master of Charisma.” But does inspirational rhetoric make good television? So attuned are we to the vicious “vote-them-off-the-island” mentality of reality television, that it somehow feels wrong when a reality show pits people against each other in a spoken-word battle of feel-good messages.

Perhaps the producers counted on Floyd Nolan, student of spiritual development, to shake things up. Floyd strutted onto the stage and sat down, saying: “I don’t have a lot of time and that’s mostly because I have to pee.” To which Richard Greene responded, “You call that a speech?!” and waved his hand dismissively (or at least the film was edited to appear that way). Unfortunately, Floyd was voted off and no other “character” has yet emerged. While the format is odd, the show is intriguing in what it is trying to accomplish.

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