Five years after signing off from daytime television, Oprah Winfrey is returning to the small screen in "Greenleaf,” a scripted drama about an affluent African American family that presides over a Tennessee megachurch.
The premiere episode, which screened Tuesday at the Tribeca Film Festival, follows Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge), prodigal daughter of Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), the leader of Greenleaf World Ministries, and his regal wife, Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield). When Grace returns home for the funeral of her sister, who has died under mysterious circumstances, she stirs up long-simmering tensions within the family.
In her first series role, Winfrey plays Grace’s unconventional Aunt Mavis, the black sheep of the family who has incriminating information about one of the church’s most prominent members and encourages Grace, a reporter, to investigate.
“Being able to do this series is a dream come true,” Winfrey said in a Q&A session after the screening of the first episode, which was met with an enthusiastic response from the audience.
She credited Tyler Perry, creator of hits like “The Haves and the Have Nots,” with helping turn around the once-struggling Oprah Winfrey Network and allowing her realize her “dream of being able to do this kind of scripted television.”
Although it could accurately be described as juicy, “Greenleaf,” which debuts in June, is a departure from Perry’s soapier fare and explores serious themes of faith, community, family and the corruptive influence of money.
It was created by Craig Wright, who wrote for "Six Feet Under,” and, as it turns, was once a minister himself -- albeit for a flock of just 40 (a revelation which prompted Winfrey to joke, “That was a Sunday school”). The project stemmed from conversations between Winfrey and Wright about the role of the church in the African American community.
“When you try to depict religion in the white church, it inevitably degenerates either into satire or sanctimony,” Wright said. Although the show is critical of the church -- the pilot hints at corruption within the Greenleaf empire -- it “takes faith really seriously,” he said. “It doesn’t seem silly, it doesn’t seem laughable or foolish, it actually seems deeply grounded and important and integral to the lives of the characters, so you actually take their struggles seriously."
The writer added that he was thankful for the opportunity "to dramatize religion in a way that doesn’t devalue it."
Another key theme for Wright, who also created the ABC series “Dirty Sexy Money,” is greed. “I’ve been pretty much saying the same thing over and over again on television, which is: Money is dangerous and you should live for the heart and the soul, and I just think it’s a message that needs to be said all the time.”
Whitfield, whose regal and ruthless character Lady Mae at one point in the pilot thanks Jesus for no longer having to fly commercial, said the show is a reminder of the disappointment that often comes from organized religion and spiritual leaders.
“It’s not the messenger you must follow,” she said to a hearty round of applause. “You have to continue to follow the message.”
Yes, but what if the messenger is Oprah? Winfrey herself described “Greenleaf” as part of a broader mission of enlightenment.
“My real role on Earth is to lift the consciousness,” she said, “to use the platform of television to show people new ways of seeing themselves and seeing the problems and the flaws and the dysfunctions we all have.”
Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.