Greenleaf: Oprah Winfrey’s religious drama needs saving from itself

The setup is inspired a warring family behind a Memphis megachurch but it needs more vigor and fewer cliches to ascend to its full potential

We all remember the time that Oprah Winfrey gave everyone in her audience a car. Or what about that time she appeared on stage having lost a ton of weight pulling a wagon full of fat? Oh, and lets never forget when Tom Cruise was jumping all over her couch. The talkshow host turned media mogul is responsible for so many memories over the years, but sadly shes unlikely to add to them with Greenleaf, the newest drama on her cable channel OWN, in which Winfrey also co-stars.

Greenleaf is a bit like Empire would be if the family led a megachurch in Memphis instead of a record label. Rather than Cookie, a matriarch who spits sassy one-liners and has more multicolored furs than the Bible has books, Greenleaf is focused on a sober former minister who is testing her faith. OK, so maybe its nothing like Empire and that could be the problem. Not that Greenleaf needs to ape Foxs megahit, but it does need a little bit more of that shows vigor.

The series starts with Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) returning home to Tennessee for her sisters funeral with her teenage daughter Sophia (Desiree Ross) in tow. Grace, a former preaching prodigy who turned herself into a television journalist, hasnt spoken to her family in 20 years because her father, Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), did nothing when his right-hand man Mac (Gregory Alan Williams) raped her sister.


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When Grace arrives, her mother Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield) accuses her of sowing discord in the family and she stumbles into a wasps nest of rivalries and dissatisfactions. Graces philandering brother Jacob (Lamman Rucker) is on the outs with his ambitious wife Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne). Meanwhile her sister Charity (Deborah Joy Winans), the churchs music minister, is trying to get pregnant with her closeted husband Kevin (Tye White). Worse still, her father is under investigation for misappropriating church funds and also failing to help a black cop who shot a black teenager in the line of duty.

After the funeral, Grace finds out that Mac raped another woman in the parish. She turns down a job at <a href=”″ data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>20/20 and starts working as a minister at the familys church to bring him to justice. Who turns down a job at 20/20 to go be a middle manager at a church, even one that happens to draw 4,000 worshipers every Sunday? No one, thats who. Well, maybe if you knew Oprah was going to be around you would.

Oh, and lets not forget about Winfrey. She plays Graces aunt Mavis, the owner of a jazz club on Beale Street who became Graces favorite relative and confidante because she was the only one not in the orbit of the church when she was growing up. Mavis is brash, ballsy and always a little bit drunk. Shes a great character and Winfrey plays her well, but shes peripheral to the action.

Now if this were Empire, all of these secrets would be out by episode three and wed be headlong into new complications. Greenleaf, to its detriment, takes a more plodding approach. The series creator Craig Wright, formerly of Lost and Six Feet Under, should know better but cant seem to help himself.

The characters are always talking: not only delivering expositions, but also working out the story points through dialogue. Other than Stella snorting some Ritalin with her cousin and Joshua having an affair with a church employee, no one really does anything. They just pair up in different configurations to chew the fat about things and subtly insult each other while wearing stiff clothes and looking uncomfortable in rooms that are a bit too formal. If talk were angels, this show would have to build several additions in heaven.

Whats disappointing is that this is an excellent setting for a television series, one with complicated hierarchies, petty power struggles, and the righteous indignation of religion simmering in the background. What makes it a shame is that the stories are so utterly predictable: the cheating husband, the ambitious wife, the sister crusading for justice, the teenager experimenting with drugs, the religious man struggling with his sexual orientation. Grace even has an old flame, the familys head of security, Noah (Benjamin Patterson), to reconnect with now that shes back.

Greenleaf doesnt seem to be using its best assets to its own advantages. Though some of the other performances are somewhat wooden, Keith David is the star of the ensemble and the best section of the first several episodes is when he is on stage preaching and demonstrating why so many people would follow him blindly. That is what should be this shows calling card, not some boilerplate storyline that has been done better on a million other programs.

Greenleafs biggest problem is that, aside from its setting, there is nothing that different about it. Its not soapy enough to be Scandal, not serious enough to be The Good Wife, not British enough to be Downton Abbey, not funny enough to be Jane the Virgin, and not quirky enough to be Better Call Saul. Instead Greenleaf is just another show. Its one with incredible potential, with all the ingredients there, but it needs someone to figure out which temperature will make this souffl rise.

The one thing Greenleaf has to make it stand out is the indelible Oprah Winfrey. It doesnt squander her gifts, but it doesnt make the most of them either. The show is obviously one of Oprahs favorite things, but the audience is going to need a bit more than her presence to make this show work. Maybe a free car would help.

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