KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Here is a world we do not see explored on TV that much, the megachurch. And, particularly, the black megachurch. But it's the center of a new fictional series on The Oprah Winfrey Network. The show is called "Greenleaf," and to talk about it and how Oprah's network is doing, we are joined by NPR TV critic Eric Deggans.
ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Hi.
MCEVERS: So all right. A little spoiler alert here. We're going to talk for a little bit in detail about what happens in the first episode of "Greenleaf" tonight. Oprah actually plays one of the show's characters. Why don't you set it all up for us, Eric?
DEGGANS: Sure. Well, this show is centered on this place called Greenleaf World Ministries. It's a family-run, predominantly black megachurch in Memphis. And as the show opens, we've got this character, Grace Greenleaf, who's played by Merle Dandridge. And she returns home after 20 years for the funeral of her sister, Faith, who killed herself.
There's some dark family secrets that come out in the first episode. And in one scene, Grace talks about some of the secrets with Mavis, who's her aunt, who's played by Oprah. Oprah's character has also rejected the family and the church over this dark secret about her brother, known as Uncle Mac, and how he treats young women who come to the church. So let's check it out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GREENLEAF")
MERLE DANDRIDGE: (As Grace Greenleaf) He did it again.
OPRAH WINFREY: (As Mavis McCready) Honestly, G.G., I don't think he ever really stopped. Every couple of years, you hear rumors about some girl he's mixed up with. Two months ago, one of the cops who works around here came to see me and told me about a 15-year-old girl from the church who'd come in and gave a statement.
DANDRIDGE: (As Grace Greenleaf) And what happened?
WINFREY: (As Mavis McCready) Nothing. She recanted.
DANDRIDGE: (Grace Greenleaf) Just like Faith.
DEGGANS: Yeah. So now we have a sense maybe about why Faith might have killed herself.
MCEVERS: Right. So they're really going there in this first episode, right off the bat. So did you like the show?
DEGGANS: You know, I think they're trying a lot of things and they sort of take the Tyler Perry mold and they've ratcheted it up a notch in terms of quality, but still, you know, a lot of the dialogue is clunky and I think you see these plotlines coming a mile away. So it's not high-quality drama, but it's better than the scripted program they've had on the channel before.
MCEVERS: Right. I mean, and in this first episode, they're tackling really big stuff - suicides, sexual assault in a megachurch. Sounds like, you know, the danger there is that it could get too much like a soap opera. Or do you think they're really trying to get at some of these serious issues?
DEGGANS: Well, you know, it's Oprah. So she's the executive producer on this project, and she's always talked about, on OWN, kind of balancing entertainment with education, right? So that's what the show's doing. And this is the first scripted drama that they've put together that isn't produced by Tyler Perry. He does two other dramas on OWN. They really seem to have learned from his example.
There's a lot of soapy, church-inflected drama here. You know, Grace's no-account brother is having an affair with the church secretary, and her brother-in-law seems like he's a seriously on the down low gay man. But they also talk a lot about spirituality versus organized religion, the materialism of megachurches and, of course, they talk about the impact of a religious institution and a family looking the other way at sexual assault and molestation.
MCEVERS: And when this network first started about five years ago, I mean, it was struggling in the ratings, right?
DEGGANS: Oh, yeah.
MCEVERS: It seems like Oprah's been turning it around. Is this show part of this strategy to get OWN on track?
DEGGANS: Yeah, I think so. I mean, when OWN started, it was really focused on speaking to the same audience that showed up for Oprah's syndicated show, which is middle-aged white women. So they had a lot of shows, unscripted shows with people like Sarah Ferguson and Shania Twain and they had a talk show with Rosie O'Donnell. And the ratings kind of cratered.
So to turn it around, they put more of Oprah on the channel. She had a new interview show. And they also focused their programming on black viewers, especially black women. So unscripted shows, like "Welcome To Sweetie Pie's." They had Tyler Perry-scripted shows.
And "Greenleaf" seems to follow in that mold. It's a bold look at a black church, a black family, black women coming together to stop a sexual predator. Oprah herself has talked about being sexually assaulted by relatives when she was younger. And so I think these issues matter a lot to her.
MCEVERS: That's NPR TV critic Eric Deggans. Thank you very much.
DEGGANS: Thank you.
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