‘Greenleaf’: A Holy Empire

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·Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
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An enjoyable nighttime soap set in the world of a Southern Christian megachurch, Greenleaf is equal parts shrewd and obvious. This Oprah Winfrey production, premiering Tuesday night on her OWN network, benefits mightily from fine performances by its stars — Keith David as the bishop who presides over Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, Lynn Whitfield as his grasping wife, and Winfrey herself as a tough, down-home bar owner.

Set in Memphis, Tenn., Greenleaf takes off with the arrival of Grace (Merle Dandridge), the eldest daughter of Bishop James Greenleaf and wife Lady Mae Greenleaf. She’s an ambitious TV reporter — in the pilot, she’s got a job offer from ABC’s 20/20 — who tosses it all aside to move back home to the church, along with her teenage daughter, Sophia (Desiree Ross). Grace rejoins the church as a pastor but uses her journalist skills to investigate the recent suicide of her sister Faith.

Related: ‘Greenleaf’ Star Merle Dandridge on OWN’s Juicy New Family Drama

The show, created by Craig Wright (Lost and Dirty Sexy Money) does a great job at conveying the mixture of good works and big business conducted by one of these grand-scale churches attended by hundreds of congregants every Sunday. David really sells the bishop’s charismatic preaching power without implying any ridicule or skepticism. Whitfield, a scandalously underused actor, is superb as an imperious woman who knows how to carve out her own power within her husband’s holy empire.

The first few episodes set up the family dynamics (one of Grace’s siblings is played by Deborah Joy Winans, of the gospel-singing family the Winans) and the intrigue, which includes allegations of molestation, financial chicanery, and sexual-identity confusion. Some of this is layered in artfully, some of it is as obvious as an SNL parody of a soap opera. The series is uneven, but in an intriguing way — it keeps you wanting to see more. And you want to see more of Oprah; her character, Mavis, is listed as a “special guest star,” and it would be easy to keep her tucked in her bar, far away from the Greenleaf church, for an occasional cameo — but the show would benefit from her more regular presence.

It’s selling Greenleaf short to peg it as a religious version of Empire, but that’s also an inevitable comparison — it’s likely that Greenleaf, long in development, became a more viable prospect with the success of Empire. Now it’s up to Greenleaf to keep on distinguishing itself — its behind-the-scenes look at the working of a prosperous church is a novel setting to explore.

Greenleaf premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m.; its regular airtime is Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on OWN.