TLC and Hot Snakes Media have already made out pretty well with "Breaking Amish," so they have understandably turned their attention to even more exotic religious fare: "Breaking the Faith," set around the polygamous cult headed by Warren Jeffs - convicted of child sexual assault - and efforts to extract women living under those conditions. Ratcheting up the drama with "Blair Witch Project"-style shaky camerawork, it's undeniably compelling, if overly massaged. Meanwhile, another new show, "Best Funeral Ever," displays the sillier side of the Discovery network's twisted personality, as well as its tendency to gravitate toward the extreme edges of a carefully shaped reality.
"Breaking the Faith" introduces a small group of apostates who have fled Jeffs' cult, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, seeking to liberate young women living under its twisted hierarchy. Essentially brainwashed by their upbringings, not all of them are either quick to leave or ready to believe the worst about the elders, including the rape of child brides.
Big Love," a lot of this will seem extremely familiar, except for the fact the performances and line readings aren't as good.
Revelations about "Breaking Amish" and spinoffs have documented how Hot Snakes uses these real folks in staged settings and situations, so there's a reason to take the elevated drama here - particularly the concerns about Jeffs' God Squad, both during the initial escape and in its aftermath - with a grain of salt. It's also convenient that the nine protagonists all fall between the ages of 18 and 21, tapping into an MTV-style younger audience.
That said, the producers have cleverly punctuated the program with news footage and taped interviews or recordings featuring Jeffs -- whose disembodied voice oozes with creepiness -- grounding it all with a sense of authenticity and jeopardy.
While "Breaking the Faith" taps into the serious part of TLC's carnie sideshow profile, "Best Funeral Ever" -- despite the obvious relationship with death -- is a much lighter construct. In fact, watching the series merely reinforces a sense that the network exercised unusual and perhaps unnecessary restraint by delaying its premiere last December, motivated by sensitivity regarding the school shootings in Newtown, Conn.
A year later it's not like mass killing has gone out of style, but the show is so broad as to be unconnected with such events, focusing as it does on reality TV's odd-occupation niche - here, a Dallas outfit, the Golden Gate Funeral Home, which puts together elaborate theme funerals known as "home-going celebrations."
In the premiere, these strange events include a brief bowling sendoff to open the program, and a wedding-themed funeral where the idea is to ceremonially blend the cremated ashes (pardon, "cremains," as proprietor John Beckwith Jr. corrects one of his staff) of a deceased couple in the same urn.
It's relatively harmless, really, if marred by the obligatory squabbling staff and suspense-free build-up to whether the event will come off without a hitch, like half the shows on Bravo.
Put side by side, the two series reflect tonally different but complementary sides of TLC's personality that fit well enough with its brand, such as it is. And if neither of them is likely to have much of a life beyond these initial runs, as they say, cremains to cremains, dust to dust.