Last season, OWN premiered the church-family drama Greenleaf. I caught the previews between commercials for Tyler Perry’s soap opera, If Loving You Is Wrong, and made a mental note that it might be worth checking out, if only to see whether it veered left into Perry melodramatic land. Then I promptly forgot about it.
Thankfully, Netflix’s trending list reminded me to check out the first season. I had an hour to spare, so I put the first episode on. In the end, I gave up my whole weekend, because once you start, you can’t stop—Greenleaf is that good and that addictive. Then, just as I started to wonder what I would watch now, like the Lord blessing Job, turns out I had caught up just in time for last night’s season 2 premiere.
The book of Job is a running theme throughout Greenleaf, as peril befalls the family that oversees a megachurch (Calvary) and lives under one roof of a small mansion in the suburbs of Memphis, Tenn. The series features masterly performances by Lynn Whitfield, who plays Mae, the Greenleaf matriarch, and Merle Dandridge, who plays Grace Greenleaf, the prodigal daughter who has returned after 20 years to upend a family full of deep secrets.
Grace was once a powerful preacher in her family’s church and a favorite of the parishioners, and when she finally returns to the pulpit, she gives a rousing sermon based on Job 3:26. Job has cursed his life and lamented, “I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest only turmoil” (NIV).
Grace’s sermon goes on to be the most profitable service for Calvary, where the theology walks the line of prosperity preaching led by Greenleaf patriarch Bishop James (played by Keith David), who is charmingly sly in fitting the holy word into his materialistic needs.
The high drama, methodically paced out, is what pulls you into Greenleaf. It’s also frustrating to watch every member of the holier-than-thou Greenleaf clan use Grace as the scapegoat, though their indignant self-righteousness helps the show to craftily address complex issues that we face daily and commonly sweep under the rug.
The show juxtaposes the use—or, really, the manipulation—of the Bible and Christianity to excuse one’s actions, or lack thereof. The son, Jacob, is caught in his affair with Bishop’s assistant; his wife forgives him in order to keep Grace from stopping his ascent into pastorhood, because infidelity isn’t a boulder on that path.
Grace’s main mission was to uncover the decades of abuse by her Uncle Mac, Bishop’s right hand and legal counsel. The sexual abuse led to her sister Faith’s suicide. Mac’s ability to cover up and get away with his indiscretions belies a tangled web of efforts by the Greenleafs to ascend and profit from their church. Bishop isn’t so upright after all.
The downfall of Mac, which causes the saintlike facade of the Greenleaf family to come undone, falls squarely on Grace’s shoulders. Mae delivers some of the best lines here, dripped in Southern charm and biblical shade. Grace could be the one person to take her on, but she always demurs to her mother. That the push toward Christian forgiveness can be twisted to keep a beaten woman silent, while the mother of an abused daughter so believes in the sanctity of her church that she forgives everyone’s silence and not only continues as a member but also works for the church, is what keeps Greenleaf intriguing and keeps it inspiring important discussions.
Going into season 2, I am most excited to see the development of the relationship between the daughter Charity; her musical director, Carlton; and her husband, Kevin. Carlton is openly gay and his partner, Reggie, will be attending church with him. It’s easy to dismiss this as the cliché church storyline, but then there is Charity’s husband, who is doing battle with his own sexuality, though he has never acted on it. In this second season, Charity, who has claimed acceptance of all people because “we’re all humans,” is super close to Carlton and his husband, to the derision of the church deacons. But she is refusing to work with her husband, Kevin, on any level.
It’s a precarious way to highlight how we box in men’s sexuality and the lack of of self-acceptance. Charity appears to be accepting and acknowledges that you cannot pray the gay away, but in reality, she’s not willing to talk to or hear Kevin out at all. And yet she’s running into the arms of Carlton and Reggie.
We notoriously respect the talents but not the humanity of black gay men, and as the deacon board makes noise about Carlton’s marriage, it will be great to see Greenleaf do what it does best: allow the self-righteous to pull back the rug and tackle the underbelly of the black family and church’s symbiotic ways.