One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
“I’ve been poor and I’ve been rich,” Teresa Mendoza, the eponymous queen of USA’s new drama Queen of the South, says in the opening shot of the show. As she does a line of coke, after emerging from her private helicopter and into her posh mansion, she admits pretty much what you expect she will post-Breaking Bad: “Rich is better.” It’s also deadlier (you probably expected that, too). Out of nowhere, a bullet breaks the window of her not-private-at-all private bathroom, she gets hit in the gut, and divulges – via voiceover – that a little backstory might be helpful.
As such, much of Queen of the South is Teresa’s (Alice Braga) pre-“Queenpin” days, wherein we see her snuggling up to a cute Texan drug smuggler, becoming gal pals with a wife of a cartel member, and slowly getting in-too-deep when her cozy, carefree life threatens to come crashing down around her. If anything, Queen of the South adheres to the genre’s formula so strictly (all the way down to the Scarface binge in a giant bubblebath), that it crumples the show into a well-executed, prettily directed, trope-filled grind, with a noticeably robust saving grace found in its magnetic central performance.
And that’s an impression coming off the brief 45 minutes I’ve had with Teresa’s character so far (the first episode was the only one made available for review); Braga shows more than enough promise to take Queen of the South along for the rest of the first season, and arguably beyond. We don’t get to see Teresa’s struggle much further beyond her initial meet-up with Guero (Jon-Michael Ecker), but she compels quickly out of the gate. There’s a quiet, coiled-back grace that Braga lends the character, which is yet again nothing new in these kingpin – sorry, queenpin – types of stories, but she elevates a whole helluva lot of what, otherwise, is been-there-done-that, narco-fueled chaos.
Chaos that’s based on a true story (that was the basis of a book, that was the basis of a Spanish telenovela), so there’s also a small tinge of no-way ridiculousness as shootouts spew into the streets of Sinaloa, Mexico and fingers become unfortunately removed from hands. It’s just that Queen of the South doesn’t play into its wilder side enough, unfortunately. Most of the opening hour is spent following Teresa’s fast-tracked rise to cartel wife alongside Guero, attending parties and going on shopping sprees and preparing for the day when a burner phone will ring – meaning Guero is dead, get out of the house, and don’t look back.
It’s hard to tell what the show will be like over the next 12 episodes, but from a storytelling POV the pilot is a bit too excitable. Braga’s charisma makes up for a lot of the truncated bits of backstory, but everything is too fleeting, too quickly sped past to truly enjoy the momentary glimpses we do have into Teresa’s past. Her downtrodden life in Sinaloa, her infatuation with Guero, their life together, it’s all a previously-on blur that feels like a catch-up to a show coming back for season 2. Most of the pilot is focused on the time after that dreaded burner phone rings, and bad guys start chasing Teresa and her BFF Brenda (Justina Machado), because they carry the show’s mcguffin – a dusty old leather-bound journal that’s full of secrets.
As the bullets rain, Teresa gets visions of herself, from the future (stay with me), all dolled up like we saw her in the opening scene. Her future self brings out the badass she’s struggling to become in the present, and provides narration to ensure that viewers know how much her slightly askew worldview is enjoying the mayhem. “You wanna know the truth?” She asks you, as Guero carves out a plan for his demise, which is more of a when not if in his line of work, “This stuff excited me.” Each device would have been digestible – just barely – on their own, but thrown together they create a perfect storm of overt pointedness that sucks away a lot of Queen of the South‘s decently well-earned mysterious, south-of-the-border charm.
They can’t stop Braga though, who still somehow makes seeing her future self – exactly how her future self will dress and act, no explanation given – somehow relatable, despite even the oh-another-one feeling to the rape scene her visions emerge from. No one in the cast matches her yet, though. Ecker barely has 15 minutes with Braga, and the two form an endearingly believable, truncated romance, but it’s hard to care about him being offed when his dominant character trait is the state he’s from. That could come to bite Queen of the South in the ass, especially if Teresa’s criminal empire is built off the back of Guero’s death, which is the endgame that the pilot hints at once or twice.
The other two notable names center around a cartel power couple, Don (Joaquim De Almeida) and Camila (Veronica Falcón), whose bickering ultimately leads Camila to leave her husband and take Teresa under her wing for a rival gang. De Almeida plays the likable baddy with the best of ’em, but Falcon shines brightest in the shades-of-grey villain roster on the show. Perhaps the biggest tease of the pilot isn’t discovering what will happen to Teresa – she’s got “the biggest drug empire in the Western Hemisphere” coming down the pipeline – but what Camila will do to help, or hinder, Teresa’s burgeoning badassery. Otherwise, the characterizations and motivations of the villains on the show are pretty poor, especially following the initial pop of violence after Guero dies and every guy in Mexico with a six shooter appears to descend on Teresa. Why are they evil? Because they drive around in black Escalades seems to be reason enough for the show.
Like every other character, they’re all doing what they can with material that seems unsure whether it wants to lean into the Narcos, true-crime route, or go full-on bananas-crazy in the vein of Weeds. Perhaps showrunner Scott Rosenbaum is trying his best to straddle both, but he falls far too deeply into the old adage of half-assing two things instead of nailing just one, and ultimately fails to honor Queen of the South‘s singular reason to watch – its Queen – with a story that’s far too familiar, despite its queasily true origins. “In this business, your shelf life is only so long,” Teresa explains, bleeding out onto her bleach white bathroom tiles. There’s promise for Queen of the South to diverge into some quality, captivating TV – it has the protagonist to do it – but its shelf life is already reading as worryingly stale.