Ever since Oprah Winfrey put an end to her uber-famous talk show in 2011, she hasn’t exactly faded into the background. It’s actually the opposite — the one-time maven of daytime has taken on a new mantle behind-the-scenes, producing and creating TV (Oprah’s Master Class, Queen Sugar) and movies (Selma, The Hundred-Foot Journey).
Winfrey is nowhere near retirement, that’s clear, and she has another TV show premiering Tuesday, June 21 on OWN Canada. Titled Greenleaf, Winfrey is both in front of the camera and behind, acting as an executive producer and starring as Aunt Mavis, a mysterious character who seems to have a lot of information.
The series follows the wealthy Greenleaf family from Memphis, Tenn., who have a “megachurch” that’s been built over generations, and even after viewing only one episode, the stakes are high, the drama is palpable and it’s not difficult to be drawn into the various stories.
The series is co-executive produced and directed by one of Canada’s most pre-eminent directors, Clement Virgo, who took the reins on raved-about series The Book of Negroes. The richness of colour and the lush tone, so apparent in Book of Negroes, are omnipresent in Greenleaf, and an indicator that Virgo is at the controls. Winfrey and lead writer Craig Wright (Lost, Six Feet Under) sought out Virgo specifically for this project. (The show has already been renewed for Season 2, and Virgo will be returning to his directorial role for its entirety as well.)
So what can you expect from Greenleaf?
Greenleaf focuses on the journey of the Greenleafs’ estranged daughter and disillusioned preacher, Grace (Merle Dandridge, The Night Shift) who returns home after 20 years away. She returns to Memphis because of the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. As she reenters the world of Calvary Fellowship World Ministries, the Memphis megachurch run by her powerful parents Bishop James Greenleaf (Keith David, Community) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield, The Josephine Baker Story — think Joan Collins, matriarch), it becomes evident that things are not as virtuous as they seem and that the family’s outward display of faith hides many sins and misdeeds.
There’s one big scene in the first episode at the dinner table, and to say it’s explosive is an understatement. Tension is palpable and titillating.
“Season 1 looks at what it’s like to run a family business, the megachurch,” Virgo said. “The show tackles social issues like sexual abuse, policing issues within the African-American community, sexuality, the church. It’s also entertainment in a juicy — and soapy — kind of way.”
Christianity and the church run through Greenleaf like water. They’re as intrinsic to the show as the cast and crew, so non-believers may want to stay away — but the rousing scenes in the church, with beautiful choir singing and intense preaching, can even speak to the non-religious. It’s not hard to be rapt by a powerful speaker, and the bishop is a force.
“When you’re in the church, and there’s the music and the preaching, you get caught up in it,” Virgo said. “It can be a wild, emotional experience.”
“We all, in some ways, at some points in our lives, ask ourselves what we believe,” he continued. “We lose a loved one, we get an illness, we suffer emotionally… we have to figure out what the universe is trying to tell us. Is there a higher power? Is there a spiritual serendipity to the universe? Grace is our guide through these issues around spirituality.”
Did you really think an Oprah Winfrey production based in the southern U.S. would be devoid of drama? This show is packed to the gills with strife, secrets and salaciousness. Things get off to such an operatic start, one can only imagine how things will develop from here.
An early favourite is Lady Mae Greenleaf, who steals every scene she’s in with one icy look or two-handed slap on the family dinner table. Lead actress Dandridge is magnetic as well, her soulful energy transcending the screen.
The series’ placement in Memphis is no accident. The environment is lush, hot, mysterious and volatile, with potential mystery around every corner. Religion serves as a counterpoint to the inevitable sinning taking place within the family, and in the incubator-type surroundings, it’s no wonder each character seems like they’re ready to explode.
Set in Memphis but actually shot in Atlanta, Ga., the south is its own character on the show; Grace returning to her hometown, with its deafening crickets and deceiving stillness, is like stepping back into the fire.
“The south speaks to the African-American churchgoing audience,” says Virgo. “Not only African-American … there’s a sense of that history and how it’s shaped the culture. That permeates what the show is about.”
‘Greenleaf’ premieres on Tuesday, June 21 on OWN Canada at 10 p.m. ET, followed by back-to-back episodes on Wednesday, June 22 at 9 p.m. ET.
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