'Queen Sono': TV Review

Courtesy of Netflix
Entertaining and rich in context, if slightly limited by budget.
2/28/2020

Netflix's first Africa-produced original is an 'Alias'-esque espionage drama with a distinctive South African backdrop.

Netflix may not have been a big winner on Oscar night, but part of me wonders if the streamer deserves at least a modicum of credit for the relative ease with which audiences were able to embrace Bong Joon Ho's Parasite.

Though there may be a remaining audience that attaches a stigma to reading TV shows or movies, there's something wonderfully progressive to the way Netflix has blurred international and linguistic boundaries such that "Hey, that looks good!" has become a more important inducement for viewership than, "Hey, that show is in a language I speak and populated by actors I recognize!" Netflix has encouraged audiences to understand that if you, for example, like CW-style teen soap operas, you aren't beholden exclusively to The CW to produce them when you might find equally entertaining genre entries from Spain or Denmark, just like you'll rapidly discover that the rhythms of the Dick Wolf-style procedural have spread across the globe.

Netflix's first script-to-screen African original series, Queen Sono, follows in the footsteps of many of the streamer's better international efforts. It's simultaneously completely recognizable and easy to classify, genre-wise, but if you actually tune in for the Alias-esque thriller, you'll be exposed to a dozen languages, several of which you probably haven't heard on your TV, and to a cultural and geopolitical backdrop that makes the familiar plot feel distinctive and somewhat new. And at only six episodes, there isn't nearly enough time for the myriad less successful elements to become serious impediments.

Hailing from creator Kagiso Lediga, Queen Sono stars Pearl Thusi as a field agent in South Africa's secretive Special Operations Group. Queen — that's her name, not a title — is the daughter of a legendary South African revolutionary figure whose assassination was a pivotal moment in the transitional period after apartheid. SOG, which itself has pre-apartheid roots and probably isn't exactly what it appears to be, sends agents throughout Africa on missions overseen by Miri (Chi Mhende), who I think is Queen's cousin, and Dr. Sid (Sechaba Morojele), but the organization is mysterious enough that Queen can't even tell her nearest and dearest what she does for a living. That means pretending to be an art dealer in interactions with her grandmother, Mazet (Abigail Kubeka), and platonic best friend, Will (Khathu Ramabulana), and yes, the in-the-dark chum named Will is just one of many places fans will notice narrative overlap with Alias.

Causing drama in the early episodes is the uncomfortable intersection between the corrupt South African political regime, a private military contractor headed by Russian oligarch Ekaterina Gromova (Kate Liquorish) and a nationalist paramilitary faction called Watu Wema, headed by Shandu (Vuyo Dabula), a fiery man with ties to Queen's past.

The past is very important to Queen Sono and not just in the mid-season episode that's told entirely as a flashback. The narrative is fueled by the optimism that greeted the post-apartheid revolution in the mid-'90s, subsequent disappointments and the multi-century history of European colonialism and corporate control of the entire continent and its often ruinous effects. So I mean, yes, you could just watch Queen Sono as a standard piece of spy TV and there's fun to be had in that experience, but that's the sort of surface viewership that leads to facile, "Oh, it's Homeland in Africa!" comparisons, or even my own Alias comparison, I guess. Because no matter how many things Queen Sono does less effectively than Alias did — and I'll get to that soon — this is a far more complicated and immediate perspective than the one ever attempted by that Jennifer Garner favorite. Maybe Queen Sono isn't always exciting, but it's sometimes provocative in very real ways, eschewing that frequently used buzzword of "Afrofuturism" for "Afrocontemporism" that's plenty valuable on the small screen.

Lediga and fellow director Tebogo Malope travel Africa, shooting from Johannesburg to Soweto to Lagos to Zanzibar, and there's a fresh and colorful look to the entire series that could never be equalled by taking a few days of production in Morocco or even New Mexico and slapping an "AFRICA" chyron across the screen. Subtitles on Queen Sono also identify the wide variety of languages spoken onscreen (in addition to English), which range from Russian, French and Afrikaans to languages like isiXhosa, isiZulu, Xitsonga and several others that weren't granted this sort of exposure when, for example, Jack Bauer spent several hours dealing with child soldiers in "Sangala." From costumes to soundtrack choices to the cast, Queen Sono has confidence in its voice and identity.

The cast isn't always a strength, mind you. Thusi nails Queen's badass attitude and when she's prowling the streets with a defiant afro that makes her far more spottable and memorable than most undercover operatives would find ideal, her swagger is impeccable. When she's asked to play high emotion, she's far less compelling and her capacity with action is decidedly limited. It's hard to tell if Thusi isn't able to execute Queen's physicality, if the flaws are with the South African stunt professional or if the directors are simply less adroit with set pieces, but Queen Sono has an unfortunate tendency to fall flat at exactly the wrong points. There's a top gear the show keeps not being able to reach, whether it's a limitation of editing and fight choreography or a failure to find scale at what couldn't have been a towering budget.

Thusi is still more consistently solid than not, and Dabula, Liquorish and Kubeka are good as well. The show isn't as effective capturing or justifying the cover-story side of Queen's life, and that leaves the characterizations really thin for Ramabulana and for Enhle Maphumulo, who plays Will's girlfriend, Nova.

Queen Sono has a lot of room to grow in its second season, to actually flesh out some of these characters as people and maybe, if the show is successful enough, to get enough money to add extras to crowd scenes and raise the stakes on some of the action. For these six episodes, all under 47 minutes for faster binging, it's enough that Queen Sono fits into that familiar-but-distinctive international sweet spot Netflix is carving out.

Cast: Pearl Thusi, Vuyo Dabula, Sechaba Morojele, Chi Mhende, Loyiso Madinga, Rob Van Vuuren, Kate Liquorish, Khathu Ramabulana, Enhle Maphumulo, Abigail Kubeka

Creator: Kagiso Lediga

Premieres Friday, Feb. 28, on Netflix.