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'Greenleaf' review: Church dynasty saga is one you'll watch religiously

Lynn Whitfield and Keith David star in "Greenleaf,"

Lynn Whitfield and Keith David star in "Greenleaf," which returns for its third season on OWN. Credit: OWN/Tina Rowden

THE SERIES "Greenleaf"

WHEN | WHERE Two-night third-season launch at 10 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, OWN

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Greenleafs are a Memphis dynasty and powerful proprietors of a megachurch, Calvary Fellowship, and a smaller one, Triumph. Calvary, which is run by Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David) has some 5,000 parishioners, a few of whom are wealthy enough to support the opulent lifestyle the bishop and his wife, Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield), enjoy.

The darkness, meanwhile, has begun to envelop them: A family member was accused of serial sexual abuse of children — he was killed off last season by eldest daughter Grace (Merle Dandridge). The bishop stands accused of having an old affair with Mae's sister, Mavis McCready (Oprah Winfrey, who appears sporadically on the series and not at all in this season's early episodes). Mae also believes he's having an affair with an unscrupulous associate, Rochelle Cross (LeToya Luckett). Meanwhile, the Greenleafs' son, Jacob (Lamman Rucker), and wife, Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne) — who run Triumph — are having family problems of their own. The youngest Greenleaf child, Charity (Deborah Joy Winans), has split from her husband.

This season, a huge bill arrives from the IRS, threatening everything and everyone. Patti LaBelle shows up as an old friend and confidante of Mae.

MY SAY This absorbing drama continues to unfold in what might be called a nonracial world as opposed to a post-racial one. The differences are not trivial. "Post-racial" is that vaguely dated, now cruelly ironic term referring to some utopian point in the future when race no longer matters. Instead, race barely factors into "Greenleaf" at all. The entire cast is black, while each member of the Greenleaf family is superficially graced — as the good bishop might it put it — with the blessings of the Lord. They have wealth, talent, intelligence and good fortune. None has been visibly scarred or diminished by racism.

This alone might seem to make "Greenleaf" its own little corner of prime-time utopia, except that it's not, remotely. Everyone is miserable or depleted or broken or broke. Money can't come in fast enough. At Triumph church, someone — the least expected someone — is palming $20s from the tithing plates. Someone else is nursing an ancient grudge and carefully plotting her revenge. Lady Mae and Grace are at loggerheads, as usual. Mae and the bishop are, too. The IRS (what else?) is adding to the misery. What's race got to do with any of this? Nothing because these are universal problems, human ones. That's what "Greenleaf" is so often all about — finding common ground, or a common humanity.

Meanwhile, this very much remains that rare — possibly unprecedented — series with an implied Judeo-Christian message, or an African Methodist Episcopal one, whereby "man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil," according to the  tenets of the church. "Greenleaf" has never threatened to become a black "Dynasty" — it's too carefully written and scrupulously acted to submit to that fate. But "Dynasty" certainly never had a message quite like this one. The Greenleafs may have a bounty of blessings, but can't remove the plank, so to speak, from their own eyes. That makes each a fallible character, potentially a tragic one.

This season, Mae (in another standout performance by Whitfield) draws closer to her own tragic fate. She's a black Lear who rages against her children, her feckless husband and finally against herself. Race does have something to do with Mae's story because she grew up in the Jim Crow South. That palatial home and that wealthy church have served as protective barriers from the past, and to an extent, the present. They're looking more and more like mirages.

BOTTOM LINE A solid two-night opener, and the next couple of episodes are even better.

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