Over the course of its five-year run, the Oprah Winfrey Network’s scripted series lineup has leaned heavily on the showrunning talents of Tyler Perry. Even though the partnership has been strongly endorsed by Winfrey herself, she’s forging forward with a new slate of shows from different voices that could be a boon for a network that may have found its legs but not a consistent stride.
There’s the series Queen Sugar helmed by Selma director Ava DuVernay and a mini-series detailing the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot in the distant pipeline, but leading the charge for OWN in its quest for deeper storytelling is the powerhouse megachurch drama Greenleaf.
Created by playwright and TV show writer Craig Wright (Lost, Six Feet Under), Greenleaf follows Grace “Gigi” Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) back to a past she’s worked hard to forget–a past steeped in secrets, dirty money, and fervent religion, and stoked by her powerful father (Keith David) who happens to be the bishop of the local megachurch and her acerbic mother (Lynn Whitfield) who’s right by her husband’s side.
“Craig and I met when we were doing the series Belief and we had a conversation about his background, not just being a writer but the fact that he spent a lot of time as a minister in a church,” said Winfrey at the Tribeca Film Festival world premiere of Greenleaf. “And we had this conversation about church and what the black church in particular means to our community, and we started going back and forth about it and he said, that sounds like a series–and I said, I think it is.”
Greenleaf could be the springboard into a new arena of storytelling for OWN–one that Winfrey, even with all her influence, didn’t think was possible.
“Being able to do this series is a dream come true to me because when I started this network five years ago, the narrative for OWN was ‘struggling, struggling, struggling network,’” Winfrey said. “What this has taught me is that as big as I have dreamed and as big as the dream that God has held for me, things get even bigger and better.”
Wright’s vision for Greenleaf is neither a melodramatic soap opera nor a preachy sermon. What he’s aiming tease out of a story he’s worked to ground in a sense of universality are the perils of corruption and a thorough dissection of faith.
“It’s a story about a woman who returns home because she misses the family and the faith that she left behind,” Wright said. “It doesn’t purport to be a portrait of any specific church or any specific community–it’s a story about a lost faith and an attempt to get it back by setting things right, and about all the challenges and obstacles that come in your way when you try to fix the system.”
In the pilot episode, a family dinner already fraught with the tension of a recently buried sibling and daughter dissolves into a brutal interrogation of Gigi’s faith–one character asking, point blank, “what do you believe?”
“When Gigi responds in that way I think she’s speaking to a question a lot of us have in our hearts when we’re searching for how to express ourselves spiritually these days,” Dandridge said. “Or if they’ve been, in some way, wounded by the actual institution of the church and they’re looking for their own path–I think in some way we’re all searching for that so I was very moved by it.”
What Dandridge highlighted is precisely what Wright and Winfrey were pushing from the start: Although Greenleaf has a black cast and is set around a black church, it’s not necessarily just a “black” story.
“What I loved is that this story we’ve not seen on television. What I loved was this was not about racial problems or financial difficulty,” Whitfield said. “The people you just met have to deal with themselves and their lives and their problems.”
Working on Greenleaf has been a personal exploration for the cast and crew, particularly for Wright who was once the minister of a church. Having that background has given Wright a deft hand in analyzing religion and faith in a way that circumvents satire.
“Even though you’re criticizing and questioning the faith, this show takes the faith really seriously and respects it and it doesn’t seem silly–it actually seems deeply grounded as important and integral in the lives of the characters so you actually take their struggle seriously,” Wright said. “When I was working at the church, part of the reason I got out is I asked [the guy I worked with] a question about something and he said, ‘Craig, you can either work in the church or on the church but you can’t do both,’ and then I got to write this show.”
In Wright’s perspective, any show done well has an “essential energy” to it–a scene or tone that encapsulates what the show is about every week.
“If I show you Tony Soprano killing a guy with a shovel behind the garage and then Carmela says, ‘Tony, you gotta flip the burgers,’ and he’s like, ‘ugh’–that’s The Sopranos. Or if Don Draper is pitching a client about family and then the secretary says, ‘It’s your wife on line four,’ and he says, ‘Call back,’ and he continues with the pitch and cries–that’s Mad Men,” Wright said. “And I always felt that this show was Grace coming in with a scythe to sweep it all clean and then the bishop stepping forward and saying ‘Wait, look.’ And then you see this little four leaf clover on the ground. It’s like, be careful what you destroy because there’s something tender and green here that wants to live.”
Like any head of a TV network, what Winfrey is chasing is great storytelling. And as OWN prepares to pivot slightly within its scripted lineup, she’s banking on Greenleaf to deliver the kind of complex storytelling that’s able to transcend race or status.
“I believe that what we all love is a good story, whether it’s your friend telling you or your mother telling you, we all love a good story. And I learned this years ago on the Oprah show, in order to truly move people, you’ve got to connect to their heart and to their emotions,” Winfrey said. “My real role on Earth is to lift the consciousness. All of my work is about the same thing–it’s about showing people new ways of seeing themselves and seeing the problems and flaws and dysfunctions that we all have and shining a little light on that.”
Greenleaf premieres June 21 on OWN.