A soap opera that goes to church

Merle Dandridge as Grace Greenleaf.
Merle Dandridge as Grace Greenleaf.(Guy D’Alema/Oprah WInfrey Network/Lionsgate)

Greenleaf 10 p.m., OWN

“Greenleaf,” executive produced by and costarring Oprah Winfrey, is familiar nighttime soap fare like “Revenge” and the similarly black-cast “Empire.”

Estranged daughter Grace Greenleaf (played by Merle Dandridge) returns to her family’s Memphis mansion for a funeral, and while she’s there she addresses a few old family secrets.

But “Greenleaf” has a distinctive twist, which is that the family, led by patriarch preacher Bishop James Greenleaf (a dynamic Keith David), runs a sprawling mega-church whose Sunday services draw 4,000 people.

So every bad thing that a Greenleaf does — and it looks like there will be plenty of Greenleafs doing plenty of bad things, including adultery, tax evasion, power grabs, drug abuse, and, perhaps, worse — isn’t just evil; it’s hypocritical.


The conversations around the dining table in the massive, excessive Greenleaf mansion are filled with praise for God and his teachings, but that Christian commitment doesn’t extend to most of the Greenleafs’ actions. That’s probably why Grace left the family, and her growing career as a preacher, two decades ago.

The tension between true worship and religious lip service gives “Greenleaf” an extra spark. The show employs some very familiar soap moves, including a controlling matriarch named Lady Mae, played with thick imperiousness by Lynn Whitfield. But the church backdrop, with the Greenleafs constantly citing scripture, remains interesting, at least in the early episodes.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.