Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
The news that you’ve seen Greenleaf before probably won’t come as much of a shock. The show is billed as a dynastic family drama whose deceit and lies bubble to the surface once a prodigal child returns with a baggage of viewpoints directly contradicting with what most in the scrupulous title clan take as gospel. Interchange Greenleaf’s sprawling megachurch in Memphis with a record business, oil company, etc, and you have the set-up of most serialized dramas in the past three decades.
That’s the unfortunate first impression that OWN’s new scripted series gives off in its opening three hours: redundancy. The faith-based approach to a bible-thumping, all-black, Southern brood – who would smack me over the head for using the term “bible-thumping” – coalesces into welcomely dense conversations of what it actually means to be Christian, but the show never works on a purely dramatic level of television, especially if you’ve seen this kind of thing a hundred times before. Its viewpoints are interesting, but they never come out of the mouths of character that engage, or from situations that haven’t been done before, and better, in a dozen other shows.
The awkward, checklist set-up only makes matters worst. The show opens with Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) making a pilgrimage up to her family’s lavish Memphis estate to attend the funeral of her sister Faith (Terri Abney), with her daughter Sophia (Desiree Ross) in tow. As a particularly intrusive Uber driver invades her personal space to the benefit of the viewer, Grace promises Sophia that they’ll be in-and-out of her family’s mansion in two day’s time, with a big interview at 20/20 in Manhattan serving as the carrot at the end of the ousted Greenleafs’ stick.
You’ll see the reversal of that plan coming from a mile away, but the pilot at least has good actors to distract from the been there, done that story. There’s patriarch Bishop James (Keith David) and ice queen Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield) as Grace’s parents. David gets a lot of mileage out of simply showing up and projecting his sermons in his rock hall concert church up to the nosebleeds, but his character is sweet and endearing, so his shoehorned subplot about possible tax evasion in the church is far more intriguingly scandalous than most of Greenleaf‘s bland story turns.
His stern better half is Greenleaf at its absolutely soapiest, for better and for worst. Whitfield plays Lady Mae with barely a wink of relatable poignancy, so it’s hard to tell whether the show’s creator – Craig Wright – is commenting in favor of Mae’s religious, old testament fervor, or Grace’s new-age, pick-and-choose spirituality. Maybe that’s the point, to let us decide, but it’s doubly hard to take the show seriously when the first thing Mae says to her daughter, as they stand on the steps of her glitzy mansion, is forcing Grace to promise that she’s “not here to sow discord in the fields of my peace.” How you react to that out-of-nowhere slice of gonzo will probably be a good indicator of your tolerance for Greenleaf‘s efforts on the nightly soap side of things.
Unfortunately, it’s an awkward no-man’s-land between the religious-focused content of faith-based media, and the over-the-top antics of the Revenges and Empires of the world, and Greenleaf doesn’t straddle that line nearly well enough to satisfy much of either audience. There are interesting strides taken in each, at least, like a scene at a dinner party where Grace gets into a verbal spat with Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne), wife of her brother Jacob (Lamman Rucker), over the difference between being religious and being spiritual.
After years in the church, Grace sees her biannual visits to communion (Easter and Christmas) as more than apt; Kerissa and Lady Mae, and pretty much everyone else, vehemently disagree. It’s a decently handled potential conversation starter but, as before, it’s hard to tell whether it’ll introduce a few more liberal points of view into the show’s more devout viewers, or only reaffirm their stances. The scene in which it takes place (barely 15 minutes into the pilot) is also far too soon into the show’s run, so all of the screeched-back arguments on such heady, highfalutin topics, among characters you barely know the names of, is more likely to generate apathy than awe.
These rushed-through character introductions are attempted to be alleviated through some clanky dialogue, with motivations that are made as direct and obvious as a tithing in church, but the show overshoots its mark. Wright is too eager to get into the deep end of the show’s central internal battle, and although Grace’s arc from renegade to stalwart is a satisfying backbone of the pilot, he shoots his proverbial load far too quickly. No time is taken to introduce the people first, and then their belief systems; it’s quite actually the other way around, and it makes for a confusingly frustrating few hours of TV.
Thankfully, as you get to know them more, some of the Greenleaf clan produce more interest than others. Grace’s reason for sticking around is worthy of enough teasing, as it centers around not only the real reason behind the death of her sister, but the potential pedophiliac monster in the house in the form of her Uncle Mac (Gregory Alan Williams). Not much happens on that front early on, but it also manages to wrangle-in show producer slash network owner Oprah Winfrey in a slight but satisfying role as a wise barkeep, not to mention Lady Mae’s predictably cheerier sibling. She brings out some much-needed relaxation and vulnerability in Dandridge, who mostly plays Grace with a bland, one-note seriousness that doesn’t do much in the way of lead character engagement.
Elsewhere, one sibling is having an affair with his dad’s office assistant Alexa (Kristin Erickson), another is attempting to start off her own preaching career and having a kid, and a teased-at drug subplot even dares to rear its cliché head when cousin Zora (Lovie Simone) offers Sophia a line of ritalin whilst peering at the mansion from atop an old Civil War barracks. Because there’s such an off-balance ratio of hits to misses, the subplot packed on top of subplot is simultaneously exhausting and unfulfilling, leaving enough room to feel impatient when it comes to Wright taking his time with Grace’s central investigation plot over season 1’s 13 episodes. If you stick around, you can at least be content in anticipating more from the Greenleaf family beyond even that, since OWN renewed the show for a second season all the way back in April.
There’s just not many purely dramatic reasons to do so from the viewpoint of Greenleaf‘s first three hours. The show is earnest – perhaps to a fault – but its hollow stakes have the tension of a wet blanket and its most interesting offerings in the way of gripping television, mainly centering on a few intriguing theological disputes, are far too fleeting. Some could easily find themselves ingrained in the quaint realm of the Greenleaf’s church, and they may see a subplot or two pay off well enough in the end, but everyone else – myself included – will have to keep praying for something more.
Greenleaf packs in a few intriguing theological discussions over its first few hours, but as an hour-long cable drama it doesn't have any of the characters, stories, or actual drama to make you much of a believer.