'Greenleaf': TV Review

An intriguing church drama that's more 'Empire' than '7th Heaven.'

Oprah Winfrey is the big name, but Keith David, Lynn Whitfield and an unfamiliar setting make this series promising.

The idea of a TV series set in the world of a Memphis megachurch is, for some viewers, so foreign that OWN can be forgiven for getting as much juice as possible out of network founder Oprah Winfrey, billed as a "special guest star," taking on her first recurring TV role. The reality is that Oprah's part, while crucial to the new drama Greenleaf, is far down the list of the show's most compelling elements, and while Greenleaf is fully immersed in the worlds of faith and spirituality, it's much more Empire than 7th Heaven.

Created by Dirty Sexy Money veteran Craig Wright, Greenleaf is the story of prodigal daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge), who returns to her family's expansive compound and sprawling Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, teenage daughter (Desiree Ross) in tow. Overseen by Grace's father Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and icy mom Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield), Calvary ministers to over 4000 worshippers per service and Grace was once a rising star as a pastor. She left under shady circumstances and her appearance, at her sister's funeral, causes immediate tensions with siblings Charity (Deborah Joy Winans) and Jacob (Lamman Rucker), who view Grace as a threat to their place in the lucrative church. Calvary is also facing a government investigation for financial irregularities and there's a darker threat courtesy of Lady Mae's brother Mac (Gregory Alan Williams).

Winfrey plays Mavis, Lady Mae's black sheep sister, who runs a blues club rather than helping with the church.

Part of the intrigue of Greenleaf comes from how differently it will be viewed by different audiences. There's a not-insignificant core that will be overjoyed to see this setting represented with so little compromise and with the opportunity to take certain parts of its message wide. Part of me wonders, however, if that group will be willing to reconcile that Greenleaf is, at heart, a religiously infused soap opera and it features steamy infidelity, gradually revealed homosexuality and teen drug use without high-handed judgment. Bible-quoting, Jesus-emulating and debates about different schools of preaching thought are mixed with doubt and rebellion. There's a tendency for religious audiences not to embrace even the best shows about faith if they aren't morally monomaniacal, hence the lack of ecclesiastical support for SundanceTV's Rectify, a remarkable drama with a more committed interest in the Christian search for meaning than any show on TV.

Being a Rectify devotee, though, is no adequate preparation for Greenleaf and there's a possibly larger audience that could enjoy this series as something almost resembling science fiction. Even if certain parts of the church terminology, from deacons to tithing to references to specific hymns, might be part of a common vernacular, the series delves deeply into the internecine politics and conflicts at the church, with terminology and relationships and various positions of stewardship that are, at times, entirely alien to my own experience. It's gratifying to feel thrust into an environment that's unique to scripted TV and being forced to learn the rules.

Frankly, this sense of authenticity and the unknown is more satisfying than the plotting, which comes close to soap opera by-the-numbers and settles for a standard of audacious-in-context more than audacious. You get how there are high stakes if people in these particular jobs and with this kind of profile harbor some of the secrets that are being gradually revealed, but through three episodes, the totality of twists and shocks probably wouldn't suffice for 15 minutes of a high churn primetime soap like Empire or Nashville.

When the narrative momentum lags and the megachurch begins to seem more like home, it's left for the deep cast to hold attention. It's no surprise that Keith David, he of the unparalleled voice and the reliable ability to keep even theatrical performances from going too big, is perfectly cast as Bishop Greenleaf. Whether he's playing to the congregation at the altar or getting conspiratorial in a smaller venue, this is an unusually great and meaty role for David. We're only beginning to see what Whitfield has in store as Lady Mae, but few actors are better suited for this kind of poised viper. Dandridge is solid as the story's steady center, though she just doesn't have as much to play as Winans' often deluded Charity or Kim Hawthorne as the ambitious, possibly dangerously so, Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne), who has to decide if advancement in the church is worth her marriage to the useless Jacob. Williams isn't afraid to literally cackle with menace and his oozing threat also brings out the best in Winfrey, comfortable but hardly stretching as a woman prone to giving out common sense wisdom and sass.

Early season directors Clement Virgo, Donna Dietch and Charles Stone II effectively balance the melodrama, vast ensemble and church details and contribute a level of technical proficiency that goes far beyond what the Tyler Perry Factory brings to The Haves and the Have Nots, OWN's big scripted hit. It remains to be seen how well Greenleaf will hold attention after the novelty wears off and the storylines have to stand on their own, but after three episodes it's a promising start.

Cast: Keith David, Lynn Whitfield, Merle Dandridge, Lamman Rucker, Kim Hawthorne, Deborah Joy Winans, Tye White, Desiree Ross, Gregory Alan Williams and Oprah Winfrey.
Creator: Craig Wright

Premieres: Tuesday, but will air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT (OWN)