If it were up to me, I would be watching the fourth episode of Queen Sugar right now. I am not because OWN, the channel on which Queen Sugar premieres Tuesday night, only sent the first three episodes, and I finished them already and then watched them again already, and watching them for a third time seems a bit much. Created by Ava DuVernay, Queen Sugar is an intelligent and atmospheric family drama about the Louisiana Bordelon family. With it, DuVernay has committed to diversity both in front of and behind the camera: The cast is almost entirely black, and the series has been directed entirely by women. (DuVernay herself directed the first two episodes.) As one would expect of a series overseen by DuVernay, it is handsome—as is everyone in the cast. This is the Queen Sugar way: It gives with both hands, providing something for your mind and for your eyes, something to contemplate and something to squeal over. It is an ambitious series with the confidence to be fun.
The Bordelon siblings are three: Nova (True Blood’s Rutina Wesley), Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), and Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), all children of Ernest (Glynn Turman)—a sugar cane farmer and black landowner in St. Josephine Parish. Nova is a journalist and activist living in New Orleans, a newspaper writer who reaches out to wrongly incarcerated teenagers and encourages drug dealers to come to marches. She has personal gravitas and a healing knack, providing council, crystals, and marijuana to her neighbors. Ralph Angel, caring and angry, is newly out of prison and trying to raise his son, Blue (Ethan Hutchison), an adorable kid whose transitional object is a Barbie doll. Charley lives in splendor in Los Angeles, where she is married to Davis West (Timon Kyle Durrett), a superstar basketball player trying to secure his fifth championship ring. Charley gave up her career to manage Davis’s, and the two appear to be the full aspirational package: in love, rich, gorgeous, too classy to appear on a reality show such as Basketball Wives, but not for lack of being asked. But then Davis and his team are engulfed in a sex scandal, just as the Bordelon patriarch suffers a health crisis. Charley and her son, Micah, return to Louisiana and her siblings. Rounding out the ensemble is Ernest’s sister Violet (Tina Lifford), who has been caring for Blue while Ralph Angel has been in jail and who has a much younger, smitten boyfriend named Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey).
Queen Sugar has its prestige TV bona fides in order: seriousness of purpose, devotion to realism, big themes, an auteur, atmosphere. The show filmed in Louisiana, and it has grace notes of verisimilitude: Nova lives across the street from a house destroyed by Katrina, the Vietnamese fishmongers on the side of the road from whom Nova buys fresh snapper. The series doesn’t overexplain the relationships between the siblings but slowly reveals pieces of information that make perfect sense. Charley is lighter skinned than her siblings, in an unmentioned way that speaks volumes, but it is not until the second hour of the premiere that it becomes clear Charley has a different mother than Nova and Ralph Angel. It explains their distance, the way Nova and Ralph Angel keep Charley at arm’s length and why she feels like an outsider, always trying to fix things with her money.
Queen Sugar is a show about race, but it is also a show about class and the way class and race are connected. The Bordelons are riven by stark financial disparities. Charley is uberwealthy, Ralph Angel is completely broke, Nova is somewhere in between. In one scene, the three fight about who will pay for their father’s care, a spat that ends with Charley and Nova putting credit cards down, each paying their part and splitting Ralph Angel’s, though the expense is nothing to Charley, significant to Nova, and impossible for Ralph Angel. The show also uses money to explore racial discrimination. A white farmer makes a lowball offer on the Bordelon farm, which is in debt, part of pattern of white farmers trying to scoop up black property on the cheap, itself part of a larger pattern of price-gouging black farmers. When a crew comes to repossess Ernest’s tractor, Ralph Angel gets into a terrifying armed confrontation with the repossessers. It’s one kind of conflict—a man protecting his property against an unfeeling bank—that swiftly becomes another kind of conflict: a black man in a situation where he could end up dead.
Queen Sugar barely has a sense of humor, the charmingly randy connection between Violet and Hollywood aside. Humorlessness has sunk many shows, but it doesn’t sink this one, which provides fun in another way. Queen Sugar does not scan as a soap opera. Soap DNA can be found in most contemporary TV shows—the long-term story arc, the hallmark of most TV in the binge-watching age, is a soap opera innovation—but the term soap opera can still signify shoddy production values and a nonchalance about realism. Queen Sugar is grounded and aesthetically sophisticated. Yet it knowingly sneaks in soapy touches, each as effective as a belly laugh. (This is why Queen Sugar feels so different from Greenleaf, though both are black family dramas airing on OWN. Queen Sugar presents as a drama that surprises with its soapy bits; Greenleaf presents as a soap that surprises with its thoughtfulness about religion.)
Most of the lather comes from Charley’s storyline, which, with its shades of Real Housewives, lends itself to camp. When Charley finds out that Davis has been less than truthful with her, she doesn’t slap him in the privacy of their mansion in the hills, calling him names before a knockout view of L.A. Instead, she takes it to the basketball court, midgame, making a scene so spectacular, it’s a wonder it hasn’t happened on a reality show: May Charley be an inspiration. Once in Louisiana, Charley goes to meet up with a friend of her father’s, who has been holding onto a tractor part for him. She expects an old man but instead finds Remy (Dondré Whitfield), a good-hearted hunk in a cowboy hat, a future love interest telegraphed so hard, you can hear the script go, “These two will have sex imminently. Stop. It will be hot. Stop.”
Moments like these aren’t slips in tone but treats for the audience. The theme song’s lyrics include, “Dreams never die/ take flight/ as the world turns,” which is to say: A long-running soap opera is name-checked at the outset of each episode. Queen Sugar takes on plenty of heavy and heady issues. But the very first scene in the show is a romantic swoon between Nova and her hunky, beefy, white boyfriend (Greg Vaughan, like Whitfield, a former soap actor), whose haircut and chest hair are both very on trend. Queen Sugar is confident enough in itself and its audience that it offers up dreamy actors and hot pairings with no anxiety that this will somehow undercut its more serious aspirations. It is an extremely alluring combination.