'Queen Sugar': TV Review

Andrew Dosunmu/OWN
A Louisiana-set drama with rhythms all its own.

Ava DuVernay's new drama takes its time, but it's another summer winner for OWN.

Cable television executives worried that a network's identity, once established, becomes entrenched need look no further than the summer image overhaul to Oprah Winfrey Network. A perception shift that began with the June premiere of Greenleaf should only be cemented with the September launch of Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar.

OWN hasn't just staked a claim as TV's destination for thematically rich African-American family dramas, but as a place where those dramas are being used to challenge industry orthodoxies and push for change.

With DuVernay leading the charge, Queen Sugar boasts a promising cast, heavily populated by black actors in their first series-regular roles, and an all-female directing team, some established but many still launching their careers — meaningful footnotes to the quality of the show, which is high.

Queen Sugar comes from the novel by Natalie Baszile and focuses on the three Bordelon siblings. Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) has a fancy business degree, an NBA star husband and a Los Angeles life so glamorous that reality cameras want to follow her. She left behind her family in New Orleans, including siblings Nova (Rutina Wesley), a journalist with eclectic side interests, and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a volatile ex-con trying to straighten out his life and serve as role model for his son. Glynn Turman plays the aging patriarch Ernest, living on the edge of an 800-acre sugarcane farm that he's struggling to tend. Scandal and tragedy bring Charley and her son back to New Orleans, back into the conflicted embrace of her family.

The prodigal child returning home is also the instigating event on Greenleaf, but Queen Sugar dodges or at least slow-burns some of the soapier aspects meant to make Greenleaf enticing and to lure viewers scared of its mega-church milieu. The first three episodes made available to critics, two directed by DuVernay and the third directed by Neema Barnette, are deliberate in pace. The point we reach at the end of the third episode is probably where a broadcast network would have wanted a pilot to get in 43 minutes and a point most plot summaries will spoiler without hesitation because it's so inevitable.

Queen Sugar opts for visual and narrative sensuousness instead of big storytelling twists and turns, though each episode has at least one heightened scene that might be tawdry or sensationalistic, if not for the effort put into earlier grounding, or vice versa. Ralph Angel gets a tough intro, robbing a convenience store, but most of what he does in the early episodes relates to quiet moments with his son Blue (Ethan Hutchinson) and Blue's mother Darla (Bianca Lawson), a recovering addict. Charley's intro is the opposite, all urbane glamour and precisely curated image, which gets torn apart by the end of the pilot. I'm still trying to make sense of Nova's character, but I like that her ambiguity is in little actions, not broad and overexplained pronouncements. This is a familiar story and the characters are recognizable, but the room they're given to breathe — and the beautifully captured locations, from the main sprawling sugar field to every carefully shot family — feels fresh.

The pace also gives the story's underpinnings room to breathe. Police actions, citizen protests in the street and the struggles of the recently incarcerated are part of the fabric of the story, but they're subordinate to the family drama, just as Nova's character wants to cover polluted water or corruption, but her boss is more interested in her writing about the headline-friendly return of her sister (and infamous brother-in-law) to town. On Queen Sugar, there's more overt politics in juxtaposing what it means to be a wealthy black woman in Los Angeles versus the systematic adversity of being a black land owner in rural Louisiana, or in the sheer diversity of black and minority faces and experiences featured on the show, sometimes just in passing. This isn't the swanky, touristy, jazzy New Orleans of Bourbon Street or the perpetually haunted post-Katrina city, but a city where people live varied lives, whether at farmers' meetings or selling seafood out of coolers by the side of the road, and young and old, worn and smooth, it looks like a slice of the real world and not a movie casting call.

That's part of why Queen Sugar isn't packed with the recognizable stars DuVernay and the producer who gives the network its name could have attracted. Wesley is probably the most familiar lead, but Nova has none of the no-filter charisma that True Blood fans loved from Tara, though they'll probably warm to Nova's enigmatic determination as well, more guarded and cautious than the more polished confidence Gardner exhibits. It took me a couple of episodes to warm to Siriboe, but his wounded fierceness is coming through fully by a showcase scene in the third episode and I liked his energy with Lawson, who has made her name playing teens for three decades on WB, CW and MTV shows, but may have her best role to date. Strong early work also comes from Dondre Whitfield, Omar Dorsey and Tina Lifford, excellent in a part that was originally going to be played by Winfrey.

Oprah has enough on her plate. She's executive producing Queen Sugar and executive producing and recurring on Greenleaf, and in just a few months she's helped revamp OWN's brand to include dramas that have to be a valuable part of the critical conversation.

Cast: Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Kofi Siriboe, Tina Lifford, Omar Dorsey, Dondre Whitfield, Bianca Lawson
Creator: Ava DuVernay
Based on the book by: Natalie Baszile
Premiere date: Tuesday, Sept. 6, 10 p.m. ET/PT; subsequent episodes air Wednesdays, 10 p.m. (OWN)