“Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace.” That’s the first line of dialogue spoken by Lady Mae Greenleaf (a chilling Lynn Whitfield) in OWN’s faith-based drama Greenleaf, and it sets the tone for a series that serves its dynastic melodrama with a liberal sprinkling of regal diva camp. The line, like the show, is a bit over the top, and yet it’s exactly the kind of dramatic tentpole the Oprah Winfrey-branded network has been searching for since its inception.
OWN started out as an extension of the brand Winfrey built on her legendary daytime talk show, with programming all about living your best life now. But contemporary TV storytelling isn’t about people living their best lives, it’s about people skating the razor’s edge and hoping no blood gets spilled. OWN first lurched in a more marketable direction for its original programming by handing the reins to Tyler Perry, whose drama series are as slipshod as the 10/90 sitcoms he once peddled on TBS. But with Greenleaf, OWN finally has a crown jewel of a drama that speaks to where the network is going instead of where it’s been, much like USA’s Mr. Robot or Lifetime’s UnREAL.
Greenleaf isn’t as high concept as either of those shows, but it dives just as deep into a cloistered environment that hasn’t been thoroughly explored. The black church is frequently, if briefly, portrayed in popular culture, but it’s used more as a symbol of cultural difference or the redemptive power of choral music rather than as a setting unto itself. Then again, Greenleaf World Ministries isn’t your average black church. It’s a sprawling megachurch with a primarily, but not exclusively, African-American congregation. It’s clearly modeled after Bishop T.D. Jakes’ The Potter’s House, one of the nation’s largest megachurches and, for some, a symbol of shifting values triggered by the marriage of Christ and commerce. (In interviews, Winfrey has admitted to giving her friend Jakes a heads-up, lest he take the show as a personal slight.)
It’s a genius concept for a drama on OWN, because it injects Winfrey’s interest in faith and spirituality into a story that finds people trying to live up to the Bible’s standards and failing miserably. Merle Dandridge stars as Grace Greenleaf, the prodigal daughter who returns to the family’s Memphis mansion 20 years after fleeing to shed the Greenleaf legacy. She arrives with her teenage daughter Sophia (Desiree Ross) to attend the funeral for her sister Faith, who died under mysterious circumstances. The reception is less than warm—hence the bit about the fields of Lady Greenleaf’s peace—especially among her siblings Jacob (Lamman Rucker) and Charity (Deborah Joy Winans), who resent Grace’s disappearing act and fear her return could jeopardize their standing in the church leadership.
Every drama series with a black cast is compared to Fox’s game-changing hit Empire, but in the case of Greenleaf, the comparison is warranted. Greenleaf World Ministries is to the suspiciously profitable megachurch as Empire Records is to the suspiciously bankrolled hip-hop imprint. Its leader, Bishop James Greenleaf (a perfectly cast Keith David), isn’t the mustache twirler Lucious Lyon is, but he’s a shrewd and calculating charmer with secrets as big as his outsize charisma. In fact, the entire Greenleaf clan works feverishly to keep their skeletons closeted, but one gothic family secret—the mystery surrounding Faith’s death—is compelling enough to convince Grace to stay in Memphis to dig further.
The set-up echoes that of Dirty Sexy Money, the short-lived ABC soap helmed by Craig Wright, who also created Greenleaf. Wright knows how to build an intriguing story of family treachery, but unlike his previous show, Greenleaf maintains a much slower, more satisfying pace. It wisely focuses on the nuanced dysfunction within the family, the strained relationships and failures of communication that keep them emotionally distant even as they portray a united front to the congregation. It’s as much a meditation on the corrupting influence of power as any nighttime soap, and portrays the sibling rivalries in predictable ways. But because the currency is moral rectitude and the favor of their father, the story isn’t merely about the pursuit of status and lucre.
In fact, vanity and greed are arguably the lesser of the Greenleaf family’s deadly sins. There’s also the implication that the family is abetting a sexual predator in order to keep their kingdom intact. It’s a familiar riff on the scourge of child sexual abuse in religious institutions and the tendency to handle such incidents as internal matters for which a forgiving God should serve as the final arbiter. The nexus of religion and sexual abuse has been explored by many shows, but most of them are procedural dramas, in which the theme only serves as a ripped-from-the-headlines spin on typical whodunnit structures. Greenleaf gives the ideas room to breathe, which makes for a nighttime soap with a heavy tone despite the occasional bursts of Mommie Dearest camp, usually courtesy of Lady Mae. (In one scene, instead of telling her nattering daughter-in-law to shut up, she says, “Your strength is better expressed in stillness.”)
As with many soapy dramas, Greenleaf’s strength lies more in its performances than its writing, though Wright and his team are surprisingly restrained, even as they build to histrionic cliffhangers. Winfrey appears as Mavis, a boozy blue club owner and Mae’s sister, and it’s yet another game performance from Winfrey, who doesn’t get enough credit for her acting chops. But the series belongs to three people: Dandridge, David, and Whitfield, who bring a quiet intensity that can make the television show feel as intimate as an off-Broadway play. When the writing is too on-the-nose—the death of Faith, for example—the actors add fascinating shades to the material. Like their characters do with the scripture, they interpret the words in such incisive ways, they can be engrossing to the faithful and the faithless alike.