It’s on at OWN. Oprah Winfrey has dipped her toe into the controversial waters of the Black church with Greenleaf, set to debut tonight on OWN at 10 p.m. Saints, clutch your pearls. In the first episode, everything from possible incest to betrayal to murder to God’s purpose is touched upon. Greenleaf is best described as a Christian soap opera, and on a network that has made a killing with Tyler Perry’s The Haves and The Have Nots that means its packed with plenty of sex, drama and conflict. But can a show that threatens to expose the secrets of a Black church and its First Family be successful without crossing the line?
Well, the answer is Yes. Greenleaf’s strength is, first of all, its powerful actors. Actress Merle Dandridge, who some of you may remember from her short stints on The Night Shift or Sons of Anarchy, has found a breakthrough role as Grace Greenleaf, the prodigal daughter of Bishop James Greenleaf of Greenleaf World Ministries, basically a stand-in for every Black megachurch you’ve ever been to or heard of. That role is inhabited by Keith David, who takes to it so well you’ll be wondering where to find his sermons online.(Nowhere, remember he’s an actor not a preacher, although you’ll be excused if you get them confused after watching).
Lynn Whitfield plays the icy matriarch Lady Mae Greenleaf, in the all too familiar role of a woman with a powerful husband who will do anything to keep up appearances. Lamman Rucker is Jacob Greenleaf, who plays the married oldest son and Grace’s brother, who has a sex problem. As in, he’ll have sex anywhere – and not with his wife. (I won’t spoil it for you.)
Winfrey returns to acting as Mavis McCready, Lady Mae’s bar-owning sister, so you can already see where that’s headed. Daughter Grace, the chosen one as far as her father is concerned, left a promising preaching career and the family home 20 years prior for mysterious reasons. She returns with her daughter for her sister’s funeral. How and why she died is murky. That’s the setup for some family drama that begins with what has to be the worst welcome home dinner in recent TV history.
What becomes clear soon enough is that Greenleaf takes on some of the known problems that beset many a megachurch – sexual infidelities and power and money hungry pastors who forget their main allegiance is not to the dollar, but the Lord. And of course, it covers those who despite those issues, strive to keep those churches free of scandal at any cost. Whitfield is perfectly venal as the First Lady, while Rucker turns his usual boyish charm into a sinister smarminess that is somehow compelling. But Dandridge, a soulful and skilled actress, is moral center of Greenleaf and it’s her struggles with faith, family and her own shortcomings that take it from cliché to a show with potential.
Although some of Greenleaf relies on outdated tropes (a character struggling with sexuality…check…a wronged, embittered wife…check) it has the potential to grow through some of its stereotypes to become a thought-provoking look at the excesses of the Black church. Oprah being both behind the scenes and in front of the camera almost guarantees that it will become a hit, but what’s more important is what it says about how institutions of power often lose their way.
If it maintains the energy and potential of the debut episode, despite some of the predictable material, it has a chance to not just be entertainment, but to make the churches that so many hold dear accountable for their sins. No, entertainment is not the salve for the wrongdoings of powerful men. But if it can make one person consider speaking up, or make one person think long and hard about what church home they should support, or if it can make one person seeking salvation or guidance take heed to the call of the Lord despite the issues revealed in the show, it may prove to be one of OWN’s most important moves. I’d give it strong “B.”
Greenleaf: Tonight at 10 p.m. on OWN
Will you be watching?
Check out our interviews below:
Lamman Rucker on his controversial role on Greenleaf
Greenleaf writers and creators talk about concerns about show content and how it came together
(Photo: Matt Doyle for OWN)