Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Queen Sugar, Ava DuVernay’s small-screen adaptation of the Natalie Baszile novel on Oprah’s OWN, is a progressive force in the TV landscape on several fronts. The family drama’s predominantly black cast is anchored by strong female characters and views the world from their perspective; the male characters are defined by sensitivity and vulnerability rather than the typical malady of American faux-machismo; the storytelling sidesteps explosive, tearjerker sensationalism in favor of nuanced drama that unfolds organically.
The show is inspired, from its fresh ideas to its rich visual style to the fact that DuVernay ensured every episode was directed by a woman, which makes it all the more disappointing that its first three episodes are far less compelling than the concept that drives them. In fact, drive seems to be the series’ primary issue; even three hours in, the story lacks a sense of momentum and thrust that makes the best shows so irresistible. Still, there’s enough thematic novelty and more than enough top-notch performances to keep hooks in those interested in a new take on the American family drama.
The “Sugar” from the title refers to, ostensibly, a sugarcane farm in New Orleans that belongs to the Bordelon family. A crisis involving family’s patriarch brings the sibling heirs to the property: Charley (Dawn-Leyn Gardner) manages the on and off-court life of her NBA-player husband Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett); Nova (True Blood’s Rutina Wesley) is an investigative journalist, herbalist and pot dealer who’s dating a white cop (talk about spinning plates); and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is an ex-con and single father who’s in a perpetual struggle with his own ego.
Life complications hit the Bordelons from all angles, with each of the siblings alternately antagonizing and supporting each other throughout. Charley’s celebrity lifestyle gets blown to bits in the wake of a scandal revolving around Davis’ team, and when she arrives in New Orleans from her sprawling L.A. home, she’s met with anything but sympathy from her brother and sister. Nova and Ralph Angel have decidedly more small-town problems and have trouble relating to Charley’s public-eye catastrophe.
The family dynamic is navigated well by DuVernay and company, and a lot of the show’s strength comes from the sensual, lush imagery that helps bolster the bubbling emotions. The rusty, earthy color palette is stunning and emphasizes the working-man grandeur and beauty of the Southern states. Even in low-intensity exchanges between characters, the off-center framing and camerawork keep you on your toes and encourage you to take notice of the detailed sets and scenery.
The overall presentation of the show is incredibly evocative and slick, and the same level of excellence can also be found in the cast’s game performances. Wesley’s gift is her ability to deliver melodramatic lines of dialogue with high intensity and yet keep the sincerity and realness of the emotion intact, and the script gives her ample opportunity to flex this particular muscle. Her dynamic with Gardner is the story’s backbone, and they both rise to the occasion. Siriboe is easily given the most clichéd dialogue of all, but his willingness to show weakness helps give the character added dimension. Ralph Angel isn’t your typical screw-up; he’s a driven, attentive father whose biggest problem is the ungodly amount of pressure he puts on himself to live up to his father’s expectations.
The drama of the siblings’ intersecting lives and those around them is navigated well by the writers, but the storytelling is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s wonderful, for instance, that the show takes time to slow down and allow the audience to contemplate the life-altering decisions the characters make, spending ample time observing the Bordelons cooking, watching TV and ruminating during their work breaks. This hangout-movie level of intimacy is welcome but, on the other hand, the pace of the show suffers a bit. On a few occasions, I felt I could see the plot developments coming from a mile away and had to wait too long to see them play out. There’s a little twist here and there to keep things spicy but, on the whole, the narrative meat and potatoes are noticeably under-seasoned.
After three episodes of Queen Sugar, there’s an overriding sense that the show has yet to take off in a big way, and doesn’t show signs that it will for at least a few more episodes, but it most definitely has potential to be a big winner when and if it finds its rhythm. It’s surprises I want. Once DuVernay and co. find that spontaneity, the show’s true virtues and strengths will be able to shine through.
While brimming with progressive, exciting ideas, Queen Sugar doesn't show signs of meeting its true potential until further down the road. Still, the stunning presentation alone warrants a first glance.