Review: Oprah Winfrey’s ‘Greenleaf’ deserves high praise, but her network may not receive its full bounty
More than five years after its much-anticipated debut, the Oprah Winfrey Network finally premieres what should have been its flagship show.
“Greenleaf” is an operatic behind-the-scenes account of a daughter’s return to a power-crazed family after she has broken ties with their Memphis megachurch empire. With a talented ensemble and exquisite location work, it’s a solid night-time soap with top notes of consciousness-raising and the added bonus of returning Winfrey to the flat screen (albeit in a co-starring role).
Still, it’s tough not to judge the solid but now-familiar family-secrets series with what it might have been.
Back in 2011, when OWN opened shop, the family drama was in full-blown revolution. “Downton Abbey” had recently debuted, the spiritually complex “Big Love” was coming to an end and shows as diverse as “Revenge,” “Sons of Anarchy” and “Breaking Bad” were redefining the ties that bind, albeit in a thematically dark and yet overwhelmingly white sort of way.
With a show like “Greenleaf,” OWN could have joined the “Golden Age” pantheon, giving us “Empire” before “Empire” with the added attraction of less violence and a greater variety of socially conscious issues.
Instead, as critics (including me) wept and prayed, she wasted years and millions mucking around with all manner of “uplifting” reality shows before throwing up her hands and handing it all to Tyler Perry.
Now, it appears, Oprah is finally taking a little of her OWN back.
Created by Craig Wright (“Dirty Sexy Money,”“Six Feet Under”) “Greenleaf” opens with Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) and her teenage daughter Sophia (Desiree Ross) returning to the very impressive family manse in Tennessee. Controlled by the charismatic Bishop James (Keith David, enjoying himself thoroughly), and his Lady Macbeth wife, Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield, ditto), the Greenleaf family runs the Calvary Fellowship World Ministries where Grace was once a rising-star preacher.
Now she is a journalist who has cut ties with the family for Reasons of Her Own. She is only in Memphis, briefly, to attend the funeral of her sister, who apparently drowned in the lake on the estate.
While James greets Grace as his beloved child returned to him, the rest of the family is not equally pleased. Lady Mae warns Grace not to “sow seeds of discord in my fields of peace,” sister-in-law Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne) views her as an obstacle to husband Jacob’s (Lamman Rucker) success and sister Charity (Deborah Joy Winans) immediately goes into full-on “no, no, look at me, Daddy” mode.
No one has two words to say about poor dead Faith.
Until Grace flees to the bar owned by her Aunt Mavis (Winfrey) and the uber story begins to unfold. Both Grace and Mavis believe that Faith killed herself because she was sexually abused by her Uncle Mac (Gregory Alan Williams), a serial predator who Mavis believes has raped other girls in the church.
So while a moving homily by her father may spark a spiritual epiphany, Grace has other reasons to return to Calvary. Where, apparently, harboring a pedophile is just the worst of many sins. In the first three plot-packed episodes, a financial investigation is launched, a kid is shot by a cop, teenagers snort Adderall and at least one family member remains in the closet.
All against a backdrop of Christianity and some truly excellent gospel singing. It’s a lot, at times too much: Exposition by forklift.
But then, “Greenleaf” is an ambitious project with, at its heart, a very delicate matter, one that requires more of its creators’ time than do the various subplots.
Wright’s attempt to present, almost immediately, the best and worst of Christianity is admirable, that he does it without falling into regional bias is heroic. “Greenleaf” is fueled by sin, both serious and sudsy, and with all the early stumbling, the show never confuses the two.
Neither does it pass judgment on faith itself, only on the very human tendency to bend it to our own will. In that way, “Greenleaf” is the fictional embodiment of Oprah’s “be your best self” ethos.
Unfortunately, while OWN was busy finding its own best, or at least better, self, television has become gridlocked with quality programming; shows that would have been hits five years ago often fall by the wayside.
With a little bit of luck, “Greenleaf” won’t be one of them.
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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