Oprah Winfrey comes down from her mountaintop to play a recurring character in “Greenleaf,” a new drama premiering Wednesday on OWN, but the boldest bit of casting here is its setting: a Memphis megachurch, where Elvis Presley takes a back seat to Jesus Christ. Merle Dandridge plays Grace, a once promising pastor who returns home for her sister’s funeral and is lured back to the pulpit, if only to investigate allegations that her uncle is sexually abusing teenage girls.
In the best scene from the first three episodes, the family gangs up on the prodigal daughter at the dinner table, questioning how someone who attends services only on holidays can consider herself a Christian. Later, a longtime member of the congregation attempts to get her grandchild baptized without her daughter’s blessing, a nod to how a younger generation of parents has lost faith in traditional rites of passage.
These moments stick out. Television rarely addresses organized religion in any sort of meaningful way, but if anyone can properly explore such tricky territory, it’s creator Craig Wright, a former writer for “Six Feet Under,” who has a master’s of divinity degree from the United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
But Wright draws more inspiration from “Empire” than from the Bible.
Much is made of the riches amassed by Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David), with a Southfork-type estate, a private jet and a staff as large as the one employed at Downton Abbey. During his Sunday sermons, which draw 4,000 parishioners, the ruling family sits on stage in chairs that wouldn’t be out of place in Anna Wintour’s living room.
In addition, there’s the eldest child having sex in the office while Daddy preaches, the son-in-law questioning his sexual orientation and a crooked senator poking his nose into the Greenleafs’ financial books. To rope in younger viewers, we get Grace’s daughter dealing with the “rich kid” problems of fitting in at a private school and snorting Ritalin to deal with way too much homework.
These are the ingredients for a decent, although all too familiar soap, but considering the setup, this feels like a missed opportunity.
As for Winfrey? Well, she’s just fine, although popping in from time to time as a Beale Street club owner hellbent on destroying the family couldn’t have been that much of a challenge. How much more interesting it would have been if Winfrey, also an executive producer and proprietor of the network, had insisted on playing the bishop’s wife, a calculating cold fish. As portrayed by Lynn Whitfield, she’s clearly got all the ambition of “Empire’s” Cookie, but is not nearly as delicious to watch.
Wright needs to push himself a bit more, as well. Shortly after attending St. John’s University, he showed signs of being one of America’s most promising playwrights, followed by gigs with “Six Feet,” “Lost” and “Brothers & Sisters.” But his last network series, “Dirty Sexy Money,” seemed to indicate he was more interested in shepherding a hit series than in creating truly provocative drama.
Thanks to Winfrey’s investment, there’s a good chance “Greenleaf” will be around long enough for its leader to redirect viewers on a unique, challenging journey, one that may trigger inspiration and ire among secular and nonsecular viewers. Can I get an amen?