OWN’s “Greenleaf,” in which a prodigal daughter returns to the fold of her family’s extravagant and powerful Memphis megachurch, never once forgets that it is first and foremost a television show – and a soapy-sudsy one at that. But it is also an impeccably written and often beautifully envisioned family drama, reflecting a level of care and authenticity rarely seen in fictional stories about church life.
Where “Empire” subsists from one shocking, oh-no-she-dint scene to another, “Greenleaf” instead values a slower but fuller pace, with a story about varying degrees of faith. The result is essentially the same: A viewer becomes obsessed with the Greenleaf family and their many secrets and animosities.
Merle Dandridge (“The Night Shift”) stars as Grace Greenleaf, a Phoenix newscaster who returns to Tennessee with her teenage daughter, Sophia (Desiree Ross), for the funeral of Grace’s sister, who committed suicide (the details of which have more or less been swept under the carpet, a family specialty). Though greeted with suspicion by her mother (Lynn Whitfield) and sister-in-law, Grace is favored by her father, Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), who looks to her to one day assume the helm of Calvary Fellowship. Caught up in the spirit at Sunday services, Grace decides to stay and take a job as a pastor.
She has her reasons. Prodded by her Aunt Mavis (played by none other than Oprah Winfrey herself), who owns a local blues bar, Grace begins asking tough questions within her father’s empire and begins investigating assault charges by a sexual predator who has a powerful role in the church. Add to this the usual array of lying and cheating by other characters and you’ve got yourself a drama as compelling as any beach read.
But creator Craig Wright, whose résumé includes work on “Lost” and “Six Feet Under,” has set out to do something meaningful here (at least in the first three episodes), and it pays off, particularly in its portrayal of church life and church business. And if O deigned to take a role in it (albeit a small one), then that should be blessing enough.
Tuesday, June 21
(OWN at 10 p.m. ET)