Oprah's New Megachurch Drama Greenleaf: Christians Gone Mildly Wild

Winfrey's new series takes on the excesses of Big Religion, but could use more of Empire's soapy joys

Last year, Atlanta televangelist Creflo Dollar gained viral notoriety after asking his followers to buy him a $65 million private jet. Dollar’s request that each of his supporters donate $300 was a particularly repulsive instance of megachurch greed, but at least it was legal. In 2014, 7,000 parishioners lost their spiritual home when Seattle’s Mars Hill Church folded after former members filed a lawsuit claiming that the house of worship was run like an “organized crime syndicate.” And in recent years, anti-gay ministers Ted Haggard and Eddie Lee Long — both former shepherds to flocks of thousands — were caught paying off their male sexual partners in cases that involved prostitution or pastoral pressure.

Given such sins and scandals, a drama about the high-stakes world of megachurches seems inevitable. Enter Greenleaf, about a spiritual-but-not-religious journalist returning home to help run the family business: her father’s 4,000-strong Calvary Fellowship. A celebrated teen preacher before she distanced herself from her family for two decades, Grace (Merle Dandridge) moves her high-school-age daughter Sophia (Desiree Ross) from Phoenix to Memphis after the suicide of Grace’s sister, Faith. “Promise me you’re not here to sow discord in the field of my peace,” Grace’s mother Lady Mae (Lynn Whitfield) warns, her villainess eyebrows as polished as her Biblical knowledge. But discord is the least of what's being sown around town.

The first scripted series on Oprah Winfrey’s network (OWN) not produced by Tyler Perry, Greenleaf reveals Grace’s family to be guilty of committing and/or covering up rape, adultery, fraud, drug use, and same-sex desires — and that’s just in the first three episodes. Debuting on two consecutive nights (Tuesday, June 21 and Wednesday, June 22), the subject matter is controversial enough on the page that even the beloved Winfrey, who executive produces the series and guest-stars as Grace’s one reasonable relative, has girded herself against backlash.

Unless the show becomes much more daring, though, Winfrey can relax. Greenleaf does ding Dollar: Lady Mae mouths a sincere “thank you, Jesus” that she never has to fly commercial again with little prompting. But, at least in its early installments, the drama focuses nearly exclusively on run-of-the-mill religious hypocrisy. The black cast, nouveau-riche trappings, togetherness undermining familial scheming, and an impending battle by the three grown Greenleaf children over the future of their father’s (Keith David) multimillion-dollar enterprise will attract comparisons to Empire. But the relatively sedate Greenleaf is too respectable for the Fox soap’s campy joys; frustratingly few are the moments like the one where Sophia’s private-school cousin snorts a line of Ritalin and shouts, “I love Jesus so much!” And yet the show isn’t serious enough, either: The first several hours haven’t inspired trust that it’s ambitious enough to tackle larger issues like the prosperity gospel or the stifling social conservatism endemic to many megachurches.

More promising are the twin mysteries that Grace investigates: why a 15-year-old girl, raped by Faith’s victimizer, later said she made it all up; and what happened in the much-publicized police shooting of a child. (The officer, a congregant, is “black — on the outside,” sneers a Greenleaf.)

It’s admittedly refreshing to hear characters speak freely and routinely about religion in the way that people all over America usually do — just seldom on TV. Anyone who’s been a part of a congregation for a few years knows that there’s no drama like church drama. But the spectacle of Christians gone mildly wild is only interesting if you think that they don’t sin like the rest of us. Otherwise, the revelation that they do shitty things — like have affairs or cover up sexual assault, just like the rest of humanity — isn’t revelatory at all.