One of “Greenleaf’s” most notable accomplishments is how much it packs into its first three episodes without seeming rushed or overwrought. It’s a classic nighttime soap, so all the staples of the genre are there: infidelity, substance abuse, a love triangle or two, greed, resentment, and vengeance. And yet this capable drama, which chronicles the intertwined lives of an African-American clan that presides over a high-powered megachurch in Memphis, treats themes of faith and redemption with earnest intelligence. It also contains some thoughtful meditations on how toxic secrets, especially those involving sexual violence, can ripple through families and communities, causing waves of destruction along the way.
Oprah Winfrey is an executive producer of “Greenleaf,” and she also has a modest but effective recurring guest role as Mavis, a relative of the Greenleaf family who runs a nightclub on Beale Street. Winfrey appears in the first three episodes, and no doubt her A-list profile will help create some buzz for the show. But more crucial to the potential long-term effectiveness of “Greenleaf” is the fine work of star Merle Dandridge, who plays prodigal daughter Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf.
Gigi returns to Memphis from Arizona after a death in the family, and is determined to stay as briefly as possible, given her troubled relationships with her powerful father, Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) and her iron-willed mother, Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield). However, there wouldn’t be a show if Gigi didn’t decide to stay, and the pilot could have done more to make her decision seem inevitable. Still, Dandridge sells her character’s motivations with so much conviction that soap-hungry viewers should be willing to overlook the suddenness of Gigi’s change of heart, as well as the bumpier aspects of the show’s first few installments.
The reliably terrific David is magnetic from the start as the Bishop, whose power has been unchecked for a very long time. Much is expected of members of the Greenleaf clan, but the bishop and his regal wife are compensated very well for their hard work. (They have a private jet at their disposal, though Lady Mae frets that it’s out of date and needs to be upgraded.)
The drama treats divine callings and the devoutness of church employees with respect while questioning whether it makes sense for a religious institution to more or less operate by its own rules. Given how influential the bishop is and how many registered voters are in his pews on Sundays, Calvary Fellowship World Ministries is accountable to almost no one. Such latitude is an invitation to abuse, and it emerges that someone close to the bishop has taken full and disastrous advantage of that unchecked power.
Without giving away too much of the story, the drama is given urgency by Gigi’s quest to get justice for those who’ve been steamrollered into staying silent. That’s the most powerful subplot on “Greenleaf,” but there are also storylines about the fraying marriages of Gigi’s two siblings, as well as a nicely calibrated arc that considers her daughter’s adjustment to her new school, which is enormously different from the one she attended in Arizona.
In the early going, the biggest obstacle “Greenleaf” must overcome is in trying to fit several different kinds of shows into one package. Dandridge is naturalistic in her portrayal of a practical, cautious woman re-examining her family history and her own choices and mistakes, while Whitfield has the imperious aura of a grand soap opera diva in the tradition of Joan Collins. Gregory Alan Williams, who plays a devious uncle loyal to the bishop, is the kind of villain who might as well be twirling a mustache, while Gigi’s daughter’s coming-of-age tale would be a good fit for Freeform or the CW. David is able to straddle these stylistically different worlds without breaking a sweat, but not all the characters and tones completely mesh, and some of the supporting roles could use a bit more depth and development.
That said, a few of the soapiest moments make the whole enterprise pop — for instance, when the controlling Lady Mae checks the striving of an ambitious daughter-in-law by telling her, “Strength like yours is best expressed in stillness.” And church services represent a literal high note: Deborah Joy Winans (of the famed family of gospel singers) plays the church’s musical director, and her vocal performances are powerful.
Helping to leaven the soapy shenanigans is the show’s underlying examination of the corrupting nature of power. If anything, “Greenleaf” is an exploration of the ways in which women quietly but persistently attempt to hold influential men accountable, especially those who have taken advantage of the faith and credulity of those with fewer resources. And though it’s not a dominant part of the early going, there’s also a thoughtful storyline that touches on issues related to police brutality.
All in all, though “Greenleaf” strays a bit, it manages to balance its many priorities with something that approaches grace, which is only appropriate for a story set in the house of the Lord.