Animal Kingdom and Greenleaf are summer surprises
June 16, 2016 6:37 AM EDT

Just as moviegoers spend the hottest months sating their collective appetite for car chases and alien invasions, so do television viewers find themselves, this time of year, hunting for programming of a slightly lower brow. This summer, two new prime-time soaps–TNT’s Animal Kingdom and OWN’s Greenleaf–provide gratifyingly visceral jolts, yet both have things to say.

Animal Kingdom, based on a 2010 Australian film, moves the action to California and gets its juice from a crucial casting choice: Ellen Barkin takes over what had been an Oscar-nominated role for Jacki Weaver as Smurf, a crime-family matriarch. Barkin practically slithers into the scenes she shares with “my boys,” the sons who rob jewelry stores for her. She pays them back with homemade green juices and meat loaf, prepared with a lurid smile and endless attention. Her bemusement, as she watches her progeny fight or do piles of drugs, is tinged with an odd edge of attraction. It’s no wonder she has pushed them into a life of crime. She doesn’t just want money–she’s energized by bad behavior.

Smurf is in complete control of her sons at all times, but she herself is a volatile madwoman. It’s little wonder that there’s no father in the picture. Barkin convinces you that Smurf has the sheer force of will to generate children from her ribs. An innocent grandson (Finn Cole), who has just moved in with her after 11 years without contact, watches her with confusion. He (and we) haven’t met someone like Smurf before. Her bordering-on-incestuous leering would feel like a cheap bid for edginess in the hands of a performer less able to sell a taste for extremity, but it only emphasizes Barkin’s talent. She’s spinning an eerie tale of maternal devotion on the margins of a conventional crime story.

Similar things are happening on OWN’s Greenleaf, a soap that alternates between unartfully delivered exposition, provocative weirdness and real insight. Like Animal Kingdom, it’s a story of reconnection with family members better left in the past: Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge), a gifted preacher, returns to the Memphis megachurch run by her father (Keith David). She’s there to mourn her late sister but ends up drawn into her sprawling family even as she observes her father’s decadent lifestyle with disapproval.

Greenleaf is as unapologetic as a tent-revival sermonizer about playing things big and broad. Does the “first lady” of the church, Grace’s mother Mae (Lynn Whitfield), fly commercial? “Never again–thank you, Jesus!” she announces. And Oprah Winfrey, in a supporting role as Grace’s bar-owner aunt, shows she hasn’t lost her ability to pitch her performance to the project’s level. Her Mavis telling a scheming brother, “That kind of prancing’s reserved for Satan” isn’t likely to put another Emmy on her shelf, but it’s as engaging as any other Winfrey performance.

In the midst of the mania, there are little moments worth delighting over. As the prodigal daughter Grace, Dandridge has a tight-lipped half-smile she delivers when her father orders her around. It’s great, economical acting, convincing you that she’ll eventually get what she wants from her family without revealing what that might be.

These shows are far from perfect: Animal Kingdom‘s central crime story is far less interesting than Barkin’s bizarre tour de force, and Greenleaf‘s boldness tends to overpower welcome moments of subtlety. Still, both summer series are worth sampling, even if you discard them by Labor Day. There’s just enough cliché here–familiar criminal lunkheads on Animal Kingdom, the tropes of soap-opera villainy on Greenleaf–to make the dramas as comfortable as air-conditioning. Barkin and Dandridge rule their respective shows. And neither, delightfully, is willing to share.

Animal Kingdom airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. E.T. on TNT; Greenleaf premieres June 21 at 10 p.m. E.T. and June 22 at 9 p.m. E.T. on OWN, and from then will air Wednesdays at 10 p.m. E.T.

This appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of TIME.

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