Oprah Winfrey has spent a lot of her talk-show afterlife bringing religion to the masses. In 2014 she launched “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend,” an arena tour that showcased Rob Bell, a new-wave Christian thinker who sparked controversy by arguing against the concept of hell. The following year she produced Belief, a docuseries that explored different faiths and different paths to God. Winfrey’s newest vehicle is Greenleaf, a blend of prime-time soap and Christian-culture critique, for her cable channel, OWN. It’s fresher, wiser, and more relevant than most shows that tackle spiritual matters, and it brings more people of color in more unique roles to TV. It’s provocative and progressive as religious pop but disappointing as wickedly delicious melodrama.
Merle Dandridge (Sons of Anarchy) plays Grace, the hotshot-journalist daughter of Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), flush patriarch of a prosperous megachurch in rural Tennessee. Grace was once a promising preacher who became estranged from her family for many reasons, including their ostentatious materialism and her evolving beliefs. But the suspicious death of her troubled sister Faith calls her home and inspires her to investigate while working as the bishop’s community-outreach minister.
Among many (perhaps too many) characters, few are pleased with the prodigal daughter’s return besides her father and Aunt Mavis (Winfrey), a blues-club owner determined to expose the family’s sins. Grace’s mother, Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield), deeply invested in the Greenleaf brand and lucre, sees Grace as a disrupter. Upon Grace’s arrival at the gated family estate, snowy with cottonwood blossoms and dotted with Civil War ruins, the queenly matriarch greets her with the ripe line “Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace.” Grace’s devilish uncle, Mac (Gregory Alan Williams), isn’t a fan. Neither is Grace’s sister Charity (Deborah Joy Winans), the music minister who’s bucking for more opportunity, or her rascal brother Jacob (Lamman Rucker) and his controlling wife, Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne).
As soap, Greenleaf bubbles with an abundance of intrigue and too many clichés. It doesn’t shy from salaciousness, yet it’s uncertain about how hard and hot to present it. The church context makes it either sillier (like the adulterous back-room quickie during a worship service) or more interesting (like a character stifling his homosexuality while trying to be fruitful with his wife). Still, the characters are compelling enough, and the performances are uniformly strong, if a touch too serious.
Where the drama is most remarkable is its treatment of religious themes. It’s sincere about Christianity, even as it attacks retrograde aspects of church culture that subvert the reputation of Christian faith. Show runner Craig Wright either knows his stuff or watches a lot of John Oliver; an ongoing subplot, for example, has the bishop fighting an inquiry into abuses of the church’s tax-exempt status. And while there are too many dinner-table arguments over doctrine, they represent difficult, important debates happening in churches across America. Grace’s relatives view her inclusive, liberal theology with heretical suspicion—the kind of heat that Winfrey, a target of conservative evangelicals, surely knows well. Greenleaf is Winfrey’s reformist wish-fulfillment fantasy and a bold expansion of her brand. With greater inspiration and a lighter touch, it might become more than that. B