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When the leads of Queens get to talking about what it felt like to be on top of the music world circa 1999, their words carry special weight: Three of them are played by women who actually were climbing the Billboard charts that decade, namely Eve, Brandy and Naturi Naughton. And when these women get to making music together, the experience is riveting enough to carry Queens over any bumps and snags that might otherwise get in the way of a good time.
Created by Zahir McGee, the hourlong drama chronicles the reunion of the Nasty Bitches, a (fictional) all-female hip-hop group that exploded the late ’90s, 20 years after they imploded at the height of their success. In one of those annoying coincidences of timing, this is also more or less the plot of Peacock’s Girls5eva, down to the fact that both groups get the idea to return when their biggest hit is featured on a younger artist’s single. But Queens takes a much different tack to the premise — more serious and searching but also much soapier, albeit with plenty of room left over for hugs and jokes.
Airdate: Tuesday, Oct. 19
Cast: Eve, Naturi Naughton, Nadine Velazquez, Taylor Selé, Pepi Sonuga, Brandy
Creator: Zahir McGee
The premiere episode crams an impressive amount of backstory into its 44 minutes, starting with a music video that serves as an efficient encapsulation of exactly who these women used to be. The lavish production checks all the boxes of an MTV hit from the era: a yacht, a mansion, a long line of shirtless hunks, an obviously CG explosion and the Nasty Girls winking and sneering at the camera in front of all of it. But the video is intercut with scenes that show who these women are now.
The confident “Professor Sex,” for example, is now just Brianna (Eve), a busy mom of five whose life soundtrack these days is “Baby Shark.” One by one, the other band members get similar intros: “Da Thrill” is now Jill (Naughton), a prim and proper church lady; “Xplicit Lyrics” is Naomi (Brandy), a struggling singer-songwriter; and “Butter Pecan” is Valeria (Nadine Velazquez), a morning show host and the only one of the quartet who’s managed to hold on to some semblance of fame.
Queens‘ early promise lies in the magic of its leads. All four feel fully formed from the jump, whether it’s in the rigidness with which Jill carries herself, or the heavy regret that seems to be weighing on Naomi’s shoulders. Each has her own struggle, and each combination of characters their own dynamic — some warm, some bitter, some in between.
Collectively, they share an easy chemistry bolstered by strong, specific dialogue. Queens doesn’t just ask you to take its word that these women were BFFs in their youth — it shows us one woman opening up over mimosas about her problems with an unfaithful man, and the others responding with goofy jokes about his penis. (Upon hearing that he still has a penis at all: “You have changed.”) The same scene veers into more pained personal thoughts about what makes it so hard to leave. It is, in short, exactly the kind of intimate, free-flowing conversation a woman might have with friends she feels bonded to for life, even if she hasn’t seen them in a while.
And these women are rarely better than when they’re freestyling together in the studio. Considering the cast’s combined musical experience and Swizz Beatz’ role as executive music producer, it’s little surprise that Queens is blessed with an all-bangers soundtrack that’s heavy on hip-hop icons (Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj, Remy Ma) but omnivorous enough to include the likes of Portishead. That the original music credited to the Nasty Bitches manages to hold its own in such company is no small feat, but their signature track, “Nasty Girl,” is as earworm-y as any of the preexisting songs used in the episode. (Well, maybe not “Baby Shark.”)
Queens‘ cast and soundtrack are strong enough that the show would seem worth a look even if all it offered were scenes of these women rehearsing in the studio or coming up with new songs together. But the premiere also seeds several dramatic arcs that promise to play out over the course of the season, including a domestic drama, a love triangle and a coming-out story.
The most promising is the Nasty Bitches’ relationship with Lil Muffin (a disarming Pepi Sonuga), an up-and-coming rapper in whom they see a reflection of their own highs and lows at her age. It’s in that storyline that Queens gets most candid about not just what the music industry can do for women but what it can do to them, and the limitations of the power that even a superstar can wield in that context.
Less confident are the shifts in tone among some of these plotlines. At times Queens takes on the rhythms of a bouncy comedy, even in storylines that are otherwise played straight and somber. Other times, it cranks up the sensuality with neon lighting and a moody song. Depending on the scene, you might take it for a melodramatic tragedy or a dishy soap — the latter particularly when Velazquez’s Valeria is eating up the screen. Combined with a plot that bounces all over the country in the first episode, picking up new threads everywhere it goes, Queens can feel like it’s trying to spin a few too many plates at once.
Or maybe it just feels like a show that’s so bursting with potential it hardly knows where to begin. The rest of the season will reveal which way Queens is headed: toward hair-pulling drama or industry critique, lighthearted hijinks or explosive intrigue, or some combination thereof. But it’s starting from the rock-solid assumption that it’s a delight to see these queens basking in the limelight again — even if the Nasty Bitches never existed in our reality in the first place.
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