-- It's taken more than five years, but the Oprah Winfrey Network is finally in the business of scripted television.
Tonight, the OWN network will debut a dramatic new series called "Greenleaf."
The soap opera centers around a daughter's return to her family's Memphis megachurch empire, it features Winfrey and a top-rate cast, including Keith David and Lynn Whitfield. It's "Empire" with less violence and more conscience. And here are five reasons why you'll want to catch the two-night season premiere:
Move over Cookie, there's a new diva on television. Whitfield plays matriarch Lady Mae Greenleaf, the wife of Bishop James Greenleaf (played masterfully by Keith David), who together run Calvary Fellowship World Ministries. A real Lady Macbeth, Whitfield's character is daughter Grace's biggest nemesis. Upon the prodigal daughter's return, Lady Mae warns Grace not to "sow seeds of discord in my fields of peace."
Church As a Backdrop
It quickly becomes clear that not all is peaceful at Calvary and in the Greenleaf family. Grace, who cut ties with the family and is now a journalist, returns following the death of her sister Faith (who supposedly drowned in the lake on the family estate). Played by the wonderful Merle Dandridge ("The Night Shift") in her first starring role, Grace begins snooping into her sister's death. Both she and her Aunt Mavis (Winfrey), Lady Mae's sister who owns a Beale Street bar, believe Faith killed herself after years of sexual abuse by her Uncle Mac. Moreover, Mavis believes Mac has raped other girls in the church. But that's only one of the family's secrets. There's also infidelity and financial mismanagement.
Whitfield is paired perfectly with Keith David, who, as the family patriarch, is one of the standouts of the series. David's Bishop is charismatic enough to equal an actual preacher in the pulpit but also real enough that you see the man underneath the robe. Fortunately for Winfrey, who is the executive producer of the series, he said yes. "From the very first moment I read the first word, I heard your voice as the Bishop. And I never heard anything else, I never wanted to look at any other actor... So when you said yes, I knew we had a show," Winfrey says in a behind-the-scenes interview with David.
The Production Team
"Greenleaf" was created by writer/producer Craig Wright, who wrote for "Six Feet Under" and "Lost" and was a co-executive producer and writer of "Brothers and Sisters." But it's his pedigree as a former preacher that allows him to show the best and worst of Christianity without passing judgment on faith itself.
What would a series about the black church be without music? There is plenty of gospel music to get the audience shouting. Deborah Joy Winans plays Charity Greenleaf-Satterlee, the Bishop's youngest daughter who's always trying to get out of Grace's shadow. As the ministry of music, Charity is given plenty of opportunities to show off Winans' chops.