WHAT IT’S ABOUT Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) and her daughter return to the family home in Tennessee — more estate than “home,” actually, and a vast spread funded (one assumes) by the huge success of her father’s back for the funeral of her sister, Faith.
She is immediately plunged right back into the family dynamics she sought to escape so long ago. Her father, James Greenleaf (Keith David), a famous pastor, has secrets, and doubtless some of those are of the financial variety. Her mother, Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield), studies her talented daughter — also once a preacher — with icy, suspicious reserve. Her siblings have secrets of their own too (and how). Then, one night not long after the funeral, her aunt, Mavis McCready (Oprah Winfrey) — who runs a popular club and bar — tells her one of those family secrets.
MY SAY Blink and you’ll miss Oprah in “Greenleaf.” At least over the first three episodes, she appears on-screen for a total of about 10 minutes, which — admittedly — would require a lot of blinking, but you get the idea: the chief executive of OWN and television’s most famous personage does not bigfoot her own production.
That’s almost too bad, because in her brief turn as the tough-talking club boss who doesn’t need a Bible or pulpit to know the true meaning of Christian grace, she’s both effective and memorable. Oprah Winfrey is a good actress, occasionally a very good one. Some of us who have paid close attention over the years — from “The Color Purple” to “Brewster Place” and “The Butler” — even suspect she may have missed her true calling. That little talk show was nice, but imagine the other possibility?
Nevertheless, you don’t need Oprah on-screen here all the time to get Oprah. Her spirit resonates in every scene, while that distinctive Oprahesque faith in love limns each and every word of the excellent script by veteran TV producer Craig Wright, the show’s creator. This is an Oprah production. No doubt about that.
You also don’t need to be black to know how vitally important the church — particularly the Baptist church — is in African American life, culture and history, also in Winfrey’s life. At least in huge public forums like her talk show, her faith often tended toward the secular. She thumped no Bibles, even if the distant echo of a Sunday morning sermon could occasionally still be heard in some of her ideas and ideals.
What’s therefore so intriguing — and unusual — about “Greenleaf” is how deeply and unapologetically Christian it often is. It’s about how people, good and bad, stray and before long abandon their flock, so to speak, or fail to see the “plank” in their own eye. Money subverts, then desiccates both the soul and word of Christ.
And just imagine: This on prime-time TV, and on a network named for one of the wealthiest people in the world?
The two most important figures in “Greenleaf” are Grace and her sister, Faith. Faith we never even meet — she’s dead even before the opening credits. There’s a reason for that, a symbolic one.
As a viewing experience, “Greenleaf” is absorbing, hardly pulse-quickening. This is not “Empire” set in a megachurch. Wright, a former playwright, chooses his words with great care, while his fine cast is respectfully attentive to them. But his “Greenleaf” — about Christian grace — really takes its cue from the words of another famous preacher, Martin Luther King Jr.: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
BOTTOM LINE Absorbing family drama about love and loss, with an added bonus: Oprah.