Mankind’s arms, as poet James Weldon Johnson once wrote, are too short to box with God. Perhaps that is why attainable human battles, especially go-for-the-jugular jousts between siblings, have fascinated us since the Biblical days of Cain and Abel.
So it only makes sense that “Greenleaf,” the promising new OWN family drama set in a Memphis megachurch, would focus so heavily on the complicated and layered relationships between sisters and brothers. Series creator, writer and producer Craig Wright (“Six Feet Under” and “Dirty Sexy Money”) is a master at capturing real and imagined slights within families, and when his latest show debuts Tuesday and Wednesday nights, viewers will see why sibling unrest is his wheelhouse.
The story begins when prodigal daughter Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge, “Sons of Anarchy”) returns home for a funeral. Like her father, Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David at his most reverential), Grace has rousing oratorical skills perfectly suited for the family business. Instead of following in her dad’s footsteps, Grace, who is too much like her dogmatic mother Mae (Lynn Whitfield, “The Josephine Baker Story”), abandoned the pulpit and became a broadcast journalist and single mother.
Mae in turn wastes no time taking umbrage with Grace’s mere presence and unflinchingly warns her daughter to keep things civil during her visit or else. Her younger sister Charity (Deborah Joy Winans) and sister-in-law Kerissa (Kim Hawthorne, “Switched at Birth) also pounce, making Grace perhaps wish she’d called 1-800-FLOWERS and stayed home.
Thankfully for Grace, the acrimony ends with the trio and her father and Aunt Mavis (Oprah Winfrey, who recurs and also executive produces) are delighted that she’s back. Mavis, who is Mae’s jazz-club owning sister, may not be big on going to church regularly but her moral compass is unflinching. And it’s Mavis who inspires Grace to dig deeper to uncover their family’s darkest and most painful secrets.
Mavis and Mae’s brother Mac (Gregory Alan Williams) is at the center of at least a couple of those familial scandals and confronts Mavis when he learns she’s rummaging through his affairs. Their terse exchange is serviceable but is little more than an amuse-bouche compared to the brawl viewers will later see between Mavis and Mae.
Winfrey and Whitfield are forces of nature and seeing them go at it as warring sisters will undoubtedly best every Alexis versus Krystal rumble that ever occurred on the juicy 1980s soap “Dynasty.” Unfortunately for viewers, that fight is slated to happen toward the end of the show’s 13-episode first season and only time will tell if folks stick around.
“Greenleaf” has no shortage of juicy moments and potential and tackles everything from prosperity gospel to closeted homosexuality and incest. Those with even a passing acquaintance with modern religion, particularly in the black community, will enjoy the tawdry hypocrisies and megachurch references. But for all of its ambition, the drama feels lopsided at times because Winfrey, Whitfield, David and Dandridge’s performances are so dominant and riveting, they dwarf everything else.
In order to compel viewers to keep coming back, Wright and company will have to either focus solely on the big four — more Oprah, please — or flesh out the ancillary portrayals so that they’re more distinctive. Until then, praise the Lord and pass the popcorn. Cain and Abel are getting in the ring.
“Greenleaf” premieres Tuesday June 21 at 10 p.m. ET and Wednesday June 22 at 9 p.m. ET on OWN.