Crackit Productions’ creative director, Elaine Hackett, talks to TV Formats about the international appeal of Bad Habits, Holy Orders, a format distributed by Keshet International.
Take a group of self-described “party girls,” who think they’re off to the Big Brother house and its requisite popularity contest or Love Island to find some ill-advised romance, and drop them off at a convent—where there are no ruthless alliances to be made or men to attract. This is the basic concept of Bad Habits, Holy Orders, a format distributed by Keshet International that’s found global success despite—or maybe because of—how it defies certain tenets of the genre in favor of a genuinely fresh idea. Crackit Productions’ creative director, Elaine Hackett, who devised and produced the original format in the U.K. for Channel 5, was inspired to make the series after coming across an article claiming that there was a small uptick of young women contemplating life in a nunnery.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be quite intriguing to take [to a convent] some party girls who are quite materialistic, saying that they can’t find love, not understanding who they want to be, having disappointment in life, too much drinking, too much shagging, not enough loving, not enough understanding who they are,” says Hackett. “You take that trend—young women who are a bit lost—and you put them in an environment that has really strict rules. Would young women in today’s world, in society, actually go and be nuns? Those were the two worlds colliding. Would it work?”
Arriving at the convent with expectations of a vastly different reality TV experience adds to the fish-out-of-water culture clash that sets up the Bad Habits, Holy Orders format. The women “were packing miniskirts, stripper heels, bright lipstick, hairpieces, fabulous fingernails,” says Hackett. “They all thought they were going on a dating show. Then they came to this environment that was so different from a Big Brother house or a Love Island, where you [have to] get your body on the show, you [have to] get instant likes. You [have to] play a game, and it’s a game about success, making people within that environment like you instantly so that you’re not voted off. There was none of that for this format.”
But, the format does allow for all of the standard beats that fans of reality TV have come to expect, says Hackett, along with a bit more heart. “We knew there would be flare-ups, we knew that there would be tears, we knew that there would be emotional revelations,” she explains. “We knew some of the girls wouldn’t get on. We knew that there’d be a clash of cultures. But amongst all of that, what we hoped within this, is that there’d be a nurturing, an understanding, a sharing, an acceptance of these young women and what they wanted in their world and in their lives, from the nuns.”
To Hackett’s amazement, however, it isn’t just the aspiring Love Islanders that are benefiting from the experience of participating in Bad Habits, Holy Orders. The nuns, too, are finding true value in the interactions. “One of the most surprising factors was how much the nuns missed the presence of these young women, these forceful, energetic, enigmatic characters,” says Hackett. “The girls brought a joie de vivre and a kind of lust for life that the nuns weren’t used to…. To have two completely contrasting worlds and for them both to learn through the experience was incredible. That was something we didn’t expect. We didn’t anticipate the nuns to say the young women have really enriched their lives.”
Key to creating the environment and the dynamic that Bad Habits, Holy Orders requires—no matter the market—is casting the nuns. Finding the ideal young women for the series is not too challenging, according to Hackett. “You know the type of young women you want; you know you want them to be looking for love, not quite sure who they are, having had some failure in their lives, wanting to explore their own depths of character, feeling maybe overconfident,” she explains. When it comes to the more difficult task of finding the right nuns and order, it’s vital to have both a diverse cast of characters and an environment that will provide a dramatic culture shift.
“The order has to be strict enough; it has to have that sort of Mother Superior, ‘These are my rules!’” says Hackett. “You also have to have alongside that the fun, younger nun that’s a bit minxy; she’s going to be a bit naughty with the girls. Then you need the ones that are a bit more industrious, show the girls another side of what womanhood can be like—you can work with power tools, you can be feminine, but you can also do everything yourself.”
To date, Bad Habits, Holy Orders has been adapted in the Netherlands for NPO for its Christian channel EO, Belgium for SBS and Italy for Discovery’s discovery+ platform. Further, Keshet International has sold the finished tape of the original series to Hulu in the U.S., Belgium’s SBS, DR in Denmark, Nelonen Media in Finland, Discovery in Italy, NPO in the Netherlands for EO, TVN in Poland and TVNZ in New Zealand. Of all of these markets, most surprising to Hackett has been Italy, where there was a big question of whether or not the format would make it.
“When it dropped in Italy, it just landed and it was crazy—people went wild for it, the numbers were brilliant,” says Hackett. “We never believed that we’d make it directly under the nose of the Vatican… That was our biggest challenge, but that’s kind of gone away. We needed to get the blessing of the pope, thank you very much, that’s all fine now. [Laughs].”
Hackett goes on to note that despite the setting, the show is not about religion, and the biggest challenge—after landing successfully in Italy—was conveying that to viewers. “We wanted viewers to know these crazy, hedonistic women who wear very little clothing and have a lust for life—but do they, do they know who they are?—are going to go into a convent. You had to know it was a convent, but you wanted them to know it was going to a convent without too much Jesus.”
Yet it is the religion and the nuns’ commitment to Jesus that deliver the beats that any reality format worth its salt needs. As a producer, Hackett illustrates, “I want [the young women] to be woken up, I want them to get very little food, I want to take their social media away from them. All of those things were happening in reality. A strict regime—fabulous, because those nuns were on a strict regime. Check. No social media—brilliant, tick, the nuns don’t have social media and won’t allow it. No alcohol! Tick. What modest living. The nuns live on a tiny budget. It ticked every single box that you might put on a Love Island or a Big Brother cast. For us, it just happened naturally because that’s the way that nuns live their lives.”
Hackett credits Bad Habits, Holy Orders’ success across borders to every territory having nuns and convents or other similar holy orders, and the fascination and curiosity that people have about what goes on behind their doors and who the women are living on the other side. Viewers around the world also recognize the party girl archetype and all that comes with it. And of course, international audiences are reliably drawn to the charming chaos of colliding worlds.
“There’s a beautiful moment, whether it’s in German or French or Italian, when the nuns are peeking out the convent windows and they see the girls arriving and the look of horror on the girls’ faces when they realize where they’ve arrived,” says Hackett. “It’s pure drama, that moment. ‘What is this? I’m going to live with nuns?’ They don’t expect it and that’s fun… It could really blow up in our faces as producers, fights and tears, one leaving—I think in most territories at least one contributor either leaves or decides they can’t take it anymore. That’s a sign of your format working! [Laughs].”
On a more serious note, Hackett continues, “The way nuns live their lives isn’t a simple journey. It might be a very basic life, in terms of material possessions, but they bring so much more to it than the material things. Once the material things have gone, like onions, they start to lift layers and layers and you can see them across the format. Across the series, you can see the girls really becoming who they are… It feels initially very light and frivolous, but what is actually going on is a much deeper transformation.”