There is a moment, a little ways into tonight's first episode of the Oprah Winfrey Network's new drama, Greenleaf, which sums up all the things that work — and don't — in this ambitious nighttime soap.
Merle Dandridge plays the show's heroine, Grace Greenleaf. Her father, Bishop James Greenleaf, and mother, Lady Mae Greenleaf, founded a powerful, predominantly black megachurch in Memphis, Tenn., where she preached as a child. After 20 years away from home, she has come back — for the funeral of her sister Faith, who killed herself.
At a tense family dinner, Grace's sister-in-law insults her, and her sister Charity (Deborah Joy Winans) rejects her as matriarch Lady Mae eggs them on. Grace is clearly uncomfortable sitting next to her mother's brother — known as Uncle Mac, he is played with mustache-twirling glee by Gregory Alan Williams. And when her mother laments losing a daughter, Grace loses her composure.
"You didn't lose my sister, Momma, you gave her away," she shouts, turning toward Uncle Mac. "You let him sit right here at the table next to you?"
It's obvious, in that moment, what Uncle Mac is guilty of, and why Faith decided to end her life.
Themes like these are woven throughout Greenleaf, issues that have roiled the black family and the black church for decades but have rarely been explored in a TV melodrama. Besides the cover-up of Uncle Mac's predatory ways, there's a philandering junior pastor (cheating with the bishop's secretary, who is white), an in-law who might be a gay man on the down-low, concerns about financial improprieties and a focus on material wealth that looks downright unseemly.
OWN has corralled some high-quality acting talent for this enterprise, including voice-over narration king Keith David as the bishop and Emmy winner Lynn Whitfield as Lady Mae. And Winfrey herself returns to TV acting for her first regular series dramatic role in two decades, playing Lady Mae's sister, a bar owner who works with Grace to take on Uncle Mac.
But these meaty issues and ace performers are undermined by clumsy writing and plotlines you can see coming miles away.
After the dinnertime scene with Uncle Mac, you know Grace will find a way to stick around and take him on, with help from Winfrey's Aunt Mavis. Likewise, you know there's something fishy about how Grace's brother-in-law is looking at the handsome young man who runs the charity using the church's facilities for an event.
There are some troubling missteps here, including the depiction of Greenleaf's two most prominent white characters as extramarital temptations for members of the bishop's family. And as hyped as Winfrey's role is, she only surfaces for a handful of scenes in the first three episodes.
This feels a bit like OWN learning a lesson taught by Tyler Perry. The prolific actor/producer/director has created four scripted shows for Winfrey's cable channel that regularly score top ratings for OWN, especially among African-American households.
Greenleaf offers the same mix of aspirational black characters, church-tinged melodrama and African-American issues that has made Perry's work so successful, particularly among black female viewers. So it's small wonder OWN would craft this series as a way to up the ante a bit, without losing sight of the themes and techniques that have made Perry's shows such a hit.
Back when OWN first debuted in 2011, the strategy was a little different. Winfrey was hailed as the Queen of All Media, coming off the success of her massive syndicated talk show. So the cable channel developed in her name began with a focus on that show's target audience: middle-aged white women.
There were unscripted shows with Shania Twain, Sarah Ferguson and Ryan and Tatum O'Neil, a talk show with Rosie O'Donnell, a show with Winfrey proteges like Dr. Phil and Suze Orman. And it floundered.
Winfrey corrected things with two big moves. She put more of herself on the channel, with a new interview show, and refocused the channel on black female viewers, with unscripted shows like Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, a series with motivational guru Iyanla Vanzant and Perry's scripted programs, which draw some of the channel's highest ratings.
Black female viewers are the secret element of success for many TV shows. They watch more TV, proportionally, than their white counterparts and they make most of the purchasing decisions for their households, according to data from Nielsen. OWN's turn toward them made sense in all sorts of ways, particularly because they remain a viewership group starved for programming about them that feels authentic.
OWN has more scripted projects in the pipeline, including Queen Sugar, a series with Selma director Ava DuVernay; and a miniseries about race riots in Oklahoma in 1921.
So Greenleaf makes a certain kind of sense as the latest step in a plan to boost scripted series on OWN. And it's likely to be a hit with fans of Perry's dramas, despite its glaring flaws.
Here's hoping Greenleaf is part of a march toward real quality that will eventually see OWN offer scripted programming about women of color that transcends the Tyler Perry soap opera model.
Because if anyone can make it happen, surely the Queen of All Media can.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Here is a world we do not see explored on TV that much, the megachurch. And, particularly, the black megachurch. But it's the center of a new fictional series on The Oprah Winfrey Network. The show is called "Greenleaf," and to talk about it and how Oprah's network is doing, we are joined by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
MCEVERS: So all right. A little spoiler alert here. We're going to talk for a little bit in detail about what happens in the first episode of "Greenleaf" tonight. Oprah actually plays one of the show's characters. Why don't you set it all up for us, Eric?
DEGGANS: Sure. Well, this show is centered on this place called Greenleaf World Ministries. It's a family-run, predominantly black megachurch in Memphis. And as the show opens, we've got this character, Grace Greenleaf, who's played by Merle Dandridge. And she returns home after 20 years for the funeral of her sister, Faith, who killed herself.
There's some dark family secrets that come out in the first episode. And in one scene, Grace talks about some of the secrets with Mavis, who's her aunt, who's played by Oprah. Oprah's character has also rejected the family and the church over this dark secret about her brother, known as Uncle Mac, and how he treats young women who come to the church. So let's check it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREENLEAF")
MERLE DANDRIDGE: (As Grace Greenleaf) He did it again.
OPRAH WINFREY: (As Mavis McCready) Honestly, G.G., I don't think he ever really stopped. Every couple of years, you hear rumors about some girl he's mixed up with. Two months ago, one of the cops who works around here came to see me and told me about a 15-year-old girl from the church who'd come in and gave a statement.
DANDRIDGE: (As Grace Greenleaf) And what happened?
WINFREY: (As Mavis McCready) Nothing. She recanted.
DANDRIDGE: (Grace Greenleaf) Just like Faith.
DEGGANS: Yeah. So now we have a sense maybe about why Faith might have killed herself.
MCEVERS: Right. So they're really going there in this first episode, right off the bat. So did you like the show?
DEGGANS: You know, I think they're trying a lot of things and they sort of take the Tyler Perry mold and they've ratcheted it up a notch in terms of quality, but still, you know, a lot of the dialogue is clunky and I think you see these plotlines coming a mile away. So it's not high-quality drama, but it's better than the scripted program they've had on the channel before.
MCEVERS: Right. I mean, and in this first episode, they're tackling really big stuff - suicides, sexual assault in a megachurch. Sounds like, you know, the danger there is that it could get too much like a soap opera. Or do you think they're really trying to get at some of these serious issues?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, it's Oprah. So she's the executive producer on this project, and she's always talked about, on OWN, kind of balancing entertainment with education, right? So that's what the show's doing. And this is the first scripted drama that they've put together that isn't produced by Tyler Perry. He does two other dramas on OWN. They really seem to have learned from his example.
There's a lot of soapy, church-inflected drama here. You know, Grace's no-account brother is having an affair with the church secretary, and her brother-in-law seems like he's a seriously on the down low gay man. But they also talk a lot about spirituality versus organized religion, the materialism of megachurches and, of course, they talk about the impact of a religious institution and a family looking the other way at sexual assault and molestation.
MCEVERS: And when this network first started about five years ago, I mean, it was struggling in the ratings, right?
DEGGANS: Oh, yeah.
MCEVERS: It seems like Oprah's been turning it around. Is this show part of this strategy to get OWN on track?
DEGGANS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, when OWN started, it was really focused on speaking to the same audience that showed up for Oprah's syndicated show, which is middle-aged white women. So they had a lot of shows, unscripted shows with people like Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain and they had a talk show with Rosie O'Donnell. And the ratings kind of cratered.
So to turn it around, they put more of Oprah on the channel. She had a new interview show. And they also focused their programming on black viewers, especially black women. So unscripted shows, like "Welcome To Sweetie Pie's." They had Tyler Perry-scripted shows.
And "Greenleaf" seems to follow in that mold. It's a bold look at a black church, a black family, black women coming together to stop a sexual predator. Oprah herself has talked about being sexually assaulted by relatives when she was younger. And so I think these issues matter a lot to her.
MCEVERS: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you very much.
DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.