Can Mary Mary Save Reality TV?

Can Mary Mary Save Reality TV?

KEEPING IT REAL: Tina Campbell and Erica Campbell attending last month's New York City premiere of their new WE tv reality series, "Mary Mary." (Photo: Newscom)

Since gospel duo Mary Mary burst on the music scene with their crossover hit “Shackles (Praise You)” in 2000, sisters Erica and Tina Campbell, who named themselves after Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene, have defied what it means to be gospel artists. And now with the arrival of Mary Mary, their new reality television show, the duo have another vehicle to appeal to audiences outside of the traditional gospel realm. The show recently debuted on WE tv, the same network that brought us the runaway reality TV hit Braxton Family Values.

However, outside of being network mates and powerhouse vocalists who happen to be sisters, that is where the similarities end. There are no dead-beat husbands, sisters on the verge of alcoholism, or sisters vying for breakout status by creating catchy one-liners which all end in “dot-com.” Their show is decidedly tame in comparison — which may be both good and bad. In the first episode, we get to see what goes into being a three-time Grammy Award-winning gospel act. For Erica and Tina (who happen to be married to unrelated men with the last name Campbell — now that’s some reality TV for ya), this means balancing their career ambition while being mothers to almost eight children between them (as Tina is pregnant with her fourth child) and wives to men who also have thriving careers. Warryn Campbell, married to Erica, is Mary Mary’s producer. Teddy Campbell, Tina’s hubby, is the drummer for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show band.

The duo is invited to perform at Macy’s “Great Christmas Tree Lighting” concert (a signature event for true ATLiens) on Thanksgiving Day in Atlanta. Their high-strung manager, Mitchell Solarek, appropriately frames this invitation as a good decision professionally and bad decision personally. Nevertheless, Solarek urges them to miss spending Thanksgiving with their families in Los Angeles because the Atlanta concert would give them exposure to 100,000 people and potentially garner new fans. And Atlanta is already Mary Mary’s number one sales and media market, Solarek points out.

Erica is excited about the concert and convinces her husband to forego their traditional Thanksgiving plans with extended family and pack up their kids and head to the A on Thanksgiving. Tina, who seems to be the more outspoken sister, is not as sold on the idea because her oldest daughter, Laiah, will be performing at a glee concert during that time and her husband’s work schedule may not allow him to travel with her.

In spite of her misgivings, Tina decides to perform in Atlanta and tries to explain her decision to 8-year-old Laiah. Their conversation yields the most real and tender moment of the show, as Laiah weeps on her mother’s shoulder and chides her for missing out on important family events. In the commentary, Tina admits feeling “guilt for having this lifestyle that I have.” Still, she also admits to loving her lifestyle and wanting to find a successful balance between career and family. She takes red-eye flights to her gigs to be able to tuck her children in at night, saying, “I can function on no sleep but them kids can’t function on no love.” I found it interesting that the sisters referred to themselves as Mary Mary when it came to career and Erica and Tina when they discussed their families. They appear to understand the difference.

Another opportunity for drama presents itself in the introduction of Goo Goo, Erica and Tina’s younger sister and the group stylist. Solarek readily admits that Goo Goo would not be his first choice as stylist but is forced to accept her anyway. Styling gospel artists is a tricky endeavor, he explains, as female gospel artists are either criticized for dressing like a church lady or like Jezebel. And Solarek’s confidence in Goo Goo getting it right — not to mention her reliability — is severely tested. We also get to meet Honey, Erica and Tina’s mom, who was their first choir director at their childhood church, Evangelistic Church of God in Christ in California.

By the time they arrive in Atlanta for the concert, Tina is in funky mood and reveals her resentment at being alone in a hotel room on Thanksgiving, particularly since her family seems to be having fun without her and Erica’s family are in a hotel room down the hall. “This freaking sucks,” Tina declares. I won’t reveal what happens next, in case you still have the episode on DVR, but let’s just say the show is clearly interested in affirming the positive.

What I like about Mary Mary is that it’s a real-life depiction of successful black women, who are married to good men and trying to do right by their families. It also helps that, though we see their faith expressed, the show — like Mary Mary’s music — isn’t too churchy or preachy.

A potential problem for future episodes? I fear the show may not have enough mayhem and dysfunction to satisfy today’s reality show audiences, who have been fed a steady diet of the raucous dealings of Braxtons, Kardashians, and Real Housewives. In fact, I checked my social media sites during the airing of the premiere and was dismayed to see little to no chatter. But, then again, Mary Mary’s signature hit “Shackles (Praise You)” broke the traditional gospel mold, so maybe their show will catch fire by flipping the script on the typical reality TV formula.

New episodes will air in the show’s regular timeslot, Thursdays at 9 p.m. Eastern Time, beginning April 5. If you’ve watched the show already, what do you think?

Second Thoughts About ‘God In Me’

mary mary blackI am not going to lie: When I first heard Mary Mary’s “God In Me,” I loved it. It quickly became one of my favorite songs from their latest album, The Sound. It stayed in constant rotation in my personal playlist for about a month. But it wasn’t in heavy rotation because I thought it was profound. Not at all. It was more so because the song made me feel good. It has a catchy beat attached to words that are innocent enough that I could feel free to jam on it rather than “Blame It on the Alcohol.” But now, with the release of the single and the video on the airwaves and the Internet, my feelings have changed.

You see, upon the umpteenth listen, I realized that the song, while expertly produced for the ears of the Christian (or non-Christian) who isn’t sold on a traditional gospel or CCM sound, features lyrics that could be misconstrued as prosperity gospel. At first I thought I was reaching by drawing such a conclusion, but upon closer inspection of the song, I find that what sisters Erica Campbell and Tina Campbell claim as the “God In Me” could be confused as preaching a sort of prosperity gospel.

Verse 1: You’re so fly you’re so high
Everybody around you trying to figure out why
You’re so cool you win all the time
Everywhere you go man you get a lot of shine
You draw like a magnet better yet I have it
Everything you wear people say they gotta have it
From the sweat suit to the white tee to the Gucci
You can probably say people wanna get like me

Hook: But what they don’t know is when you go home
And get behind closed doors man you hit the floor
And what they can’t see is you’re on your knees
So the next time you get it just tell ’em

Verse 2: You see her style you think she nice
You look at her whip you say the whip tight
You look at her crib you thinks she’s paid
You look at her life you think she’s got it made
But everything she’s got the girl’s been given
She calls it a blessing but you call it living
When it comes to money she can be a hero
She writes them checks with a whole lot of zeros

Now the first verse is a little bit closer to what I’d expect someone to claim as evidence of the God in them. But it all goes downhill from there, as the duo trades inner-man change shown outward for the accumulation of goods as evidence of the God in them.

Side note: I will not take away from the fact that Mary Mary is giving it up to God and acknowledging that He is the source of all they have. That’s not what I take issue with. I take issue with the fact that it seems they are steering people toward a false understanding of God by boasting about prosperity as opposed to the real power of God in the believer’s life. This could present a problem for the babe in Christ who doesn’t have a deep knowledge of what God in them is supposed to look like. They may be deceived into thinking that the prayers of the righteous availeth much Gucci, nice whips, and lots of money. But in reality, “God in us” reveals so much more than the sum of our possessions. It’s dangerous to portray God to the world as one who does a good job of blessing us with things before you show the world how He broke you before He could give you any of these things.

I realize that this song has amazing crossover potential, since it sounds like any old secular song; and if you put the video on mute, you might think you were watching a secular video. But therein lies the problem. This video and song have potential to be played the world over, and it may be some people’s first time hearing about God. So you have to wonder, What will someone get after listening to this song? A healthy understanding of God, or a fractured one that highlights the part everyone can get excited about?

I worry that the sisters are not presenting a holistic view of what the God in a person looks like. They are not wrong to say that the God in them draws people to them, blesses them with fly clothes, hot whips, money, and cool friends, but God is so much more than that. I want people to see that He is to be worshiped not for the things He gives us but for who He is. And really, if we are going to worship Him for giving us something, let’s worship Him for Jesus.

In the end, I respect Mary Mary for making music that bridges the gap. I am a fan. Last year, I gave The Sound high marks in an earlier UrbanFaith review. I just want these talented young women to make sure they are being more careful with their theology when trying to be “all things to all men.” Like many of their colleagues in the industry, they need to be ever cognizant of the fact that everything they do as gospel artists must communicate biblical truth in a way that does not mislead unwitting fans or misrepresent a holy God.