Review: Could OWN's 'Queen Sugar' be TV's next great family drama?
Other than Sundance's Rectify, no recent TV drama has been as comfortable in silence as Queen Sugar, the new OWN family drama created by Selma director Ava DuVernay, adapting the novel by Natalie Baszile. The series lingers over moments that other shows might feel compelled to rush through, or fill with dialogue out of fear the audience might grow bored or not understand what's running through the character's minds. DuVernay appreciates the power of those silences, and the ways they can make a moment feel sexier, or more unsettling, or more powerful than if everyone on-screen was constantly articulating his or her thoughts. So many of the series' emotions are conveyed through gestures, tight close-ups, or simply showing one of the regulars going through their daily routine.
As a result, Queen Sugar — about a trio of adult siblings who attempt to run their family's sugarcane farm in rural Louisiana after their father suffers a stroke — simultaneously occupies the creative space of an independent film and a glossy melodrama. Big things happen on the series (which debuts tomorrow at 10 p.m., before airing regularly on Wednesdays at 10 starting the next night), including death, crime, and very public scandal, but the filmmaking style used by DuVernay (who directed the show's first two episodes) and others creates such a level of intimacy that Queen Sugar isn't so much a spectacle as an immersion experience. You don't exactly join the fictional Bordelon clan, but you quickly come to understand them as if you've known them all your life.
The show is, in no particular order, a family drama — of a kind TV has badly needed more of since Parenthood ended — a portrait of a culture clash, an emotional potboiler, and an underdog farming saga, with a marvelous sense of place and command of tone (an extremely serious tone, at that) and several excellent performances, particularly by national acting treasure Glynn Turman as the ailing family patriarch Ernest and Rutina Wesley as his reporter/activist daughter Nova.
Nova and her brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) — an ex-con struggling to do right by his young son Blue (Ethan Hutchison), while protecting him from the boy's troubled mother Darla (Bianca Lawson) — have stayed local and true to the family traditions, whether Nova practicing folk medicine on the side or Ralph Angel learning the farming ropes from Ernest. Their sister Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), on the other hand, has traveled very far, emotionally and geographically, from her roots, as a successful businesswoman whose husband Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett) is a pro basketball star in Los Angeles. They are the perfect couple — him searching for his elusive fifth championship, her held up by sportscasters as a paragon of class, and pursued by reality TV producers to be the non-crazy one on a new show — and Nova and Ralph Angel resent her airs as much as her money when she returns home to help after Ernest takes ill.
Some of the material about Charley's marriage is sketchy — the team gets mixed up in a rape scandal, and fans turn on the players literally in mid-game, which would seem foreign to all the Laker faithful who had Kobe Bryant's back during his own trials and tribulations in this area — but it gets her home and adds additional complications to the more pressing matters causing trouble for her siblings, her aunt Violet (Tina Lifford, who was Crosby's mother-in-law on Parenthood) and Violet's younger boyfriend Hollywood (Omar Dorsey).
Again and again throughout the three episodes OWN made available for review, DuVernay and company (the third episode was directed by TV veteran Neema Barnette) find ways to stage familiar moments in unfamiliar ways, like how a scene involving the care of Ralph Angel's son is presented as an off-camera phone call while we watch Blue wait patiently — in a manner suggesting this is far from the first time — for his father, or anyone, to pick him up from school. The eclectic soundtrack features everything from hip-hop and blues to U2, and the visual compositions for most scenes make sure to capture the beauty, and at times harshness, of where the Bordelons were born and raised. Brick by brick, these approaches knock down the fourth wall that exists between the characters and the audience. It's not that Nova turns into Abed from Community and starts pointing out the cliches of the genre, but that it quickly feels less like watching a fictional story than being a fly on the wall to witness a real family's problems.
As Charley contemplates whether she wants to really put her cosmopolitan life on hold to learn how to grow sugarcane and save her birthright from falling into the hands of an unscrupulous local farming magnate, Ernest's friend Remy (Dondre Whitfield) tries to warn and encourage her about the prospect at the same time.
"This work is going to test your soul," he tells her. "But I think your soul can handle it."
Well before tomorrow night's premiere of this 13-episode first season, OWN ordered a second. This is becoming more and more a standard practice of Peak TV: a way to not only get an extra round of publicity, but to signal to commitment-phobic viewers that a new show will be around long enough to be worth the investment of time and feeling. And in this case, being executive produced by Oprah Winfrey certainly hasn't hurt the show's prospects. (See also Greenleaf, which OWN gave a similar pre-debut renewal to earlier this year.) But Queen Sugar feels like a show built to last — albeit the sort that will frequently inspire its viewers to get choked up, shake their fists at the sky, and wonder why they keep letting Ava DuVernay and friends so expertly control their emotions like this.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org