The Oprah Winfrey Network’s ‘Greenleaf’ is a Rare Series that Nimbly Tackles Religious Belief

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The Oprah Winfrey Network is the latest to get into the original scripted series game in these boom times of TV: The network is betting big on Greenleaf, a juicy hour-long drama about a Memphis mega-church and the dynastic family that runs it. With excellent performances, a meaty hook, and an unfamiliar setting, Greenleaf — which premieres tonight, and has already been renewed for a second season — is a rare series that nimbly tackles religious belief.

The show centers on Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge), who returns home from Phoenix with her teenage daughter, Sophia (Desiree Ross), to attend her sister Faith’s funeral. Having left her position as a preacher at Calvary Fellowship World Ministries twenty years earlier, it’s immediately clear that Grace has mixed feelings about her return to Memphis.

Created by veteran TV writer Craig Wright — who briefly became a born-again Christian in his teens and attended seminary in his late twenties — Greenleaf creates a fully realized and unique (for TV) world. In the first three episodes, the show covers a lot of ground, acquainting us with Mae and her husband, Bishop James Greenleaf (an excellent Keith David); their eldest son, Jacob (Lamman Rucker), and his hard-nosed, devout wife, Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne); youngest daughter Charity (Deborah Joy Winans), the Minister of Music, and her husband, Kevin (Tye White); and Mavis McCready (Oprah Winfrey), Mae’s estranged sister who runs a blues club in the city.

From the beginning, the show hints at major friction beneath the surface of this powerful, God-fearing family. “Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace,” her mother, Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield), says upon greeting her daughter at the gated mansion where the Greenleaf family resides. Mae’s heightened speech might not work if it weren’t for Whitfield’s fierce and magnetic performance. With a commanding presence and eyebrows like the Golden Arches, Whitfield is a standout in a strong ensemble cast, lending her lines a vaguely sinister politeness: “Flee, flee!” she tells her granddaughter, Zora (Lovie Simone), when she asks to be excused from the dinner table. “I would too if I wasn’t anchored here by the demands of propriety.”

Greenleaf is blunt in its critique of the tax-exempt status of mega-churches and the money they squeeze out of their loyal congregants. When a cab driver — who gushes that his mother used to love to hear her preach — drops Grace and Sophia outside the gates of the Greenleaf mansion, Grace hands him a wad of bills and says, “This isn’t a tip. It’s a refund.” Delivering a sermon, Bishop James tells a story that “goes back to when Mae and I were still flying commercial.” “Never again, thank you Jesus!” Mae responds.

But Greenleaf is not interested in blindly bashing God-fearing folk. It treats religious conviction with both irreverence and respect, sensitive to the ways in which each character taps into her faith (or doesn’t). When the family sits down to dinner upon Grace and Sophia’s arrival, Kerissa interrogates Grace, demanding to know which church she attends. “There’s lots of ways to commune with God, and not all of them take place in church,” Grace points out.

Kerissa insists that to be a true Christian, one must follow the word of Jesus; Grace counters her, saying, “I guess I believe there’s a part of everything that tries. Plants try to grow, animals try to survive. People try to better themselves to get ahead. Everything tries to do something. And I guess I think that Christianity is just one way that the trying part of people tries to connect with the trying part of everything else.” James applauds the sentiment, but Mae objects: “It has nothing to do with Jesus and the price he paid on the cross for my sins.” They all “amen.”

In the world of the show, everyone appears to be a believer — the family uses “God is good” as a catch-all (“All the time!” is the inevitable reply). But when it comes out of the mouths of Grace, Sophia, or the cheeky, Ritalin-snorting Zora, the phrase takes on a winking irony.

And yet, for Grace, belief is complicated by the fact that the Calvary is home. Listening to her father preach for the first time in many years, she’s emotionally struck. “The bible is not a rule book,” James intones. “The bible, praise God, is like a bunch of emails from the best friend you ever had saying I love you, I miss you. Please come home.” The band starts up, and Charity begins to sing, backed up by a purple-robed choir. Grace rises from her pew to take communion with the others, tears streaming down her face.

But Grace’s personal belief is forever tainted by the knowledge that her family is milking congregants for their money — not to mention a dark secret that prompts her to stay in Memphis for the foreseeable future, at her aunt Mavis’s urging.

The series packs a lot of story into its first three episodes; some plotlines are easier to grasp than others. But an intriguing blend of family drama, theology, and crime makes Greenleaf a standout in an increasingly crowded field.