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‘Queen Sugar’ Review: Ava DuVernay’s OWN Series is Frustratingly Familiar

Ava Duvernay and Oprah Winfrey's female-driven drama is a great step forward for so many progressive issues, but what's on screen is far from great TV.

Queen Sugar Rutina Wesley & Dawn-Lyen Gardner

Photo by Skip Bolen © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc / Courtesy of OWN

As sad as it is to report, there’s no denying it: “Queen Sugar” is far from TV royalty.

It’s rather befuddling when something as progressive as a female-directed cable drama with a diverse cast can feel so familiar. After all, one of the most appealing artistic aspects of hearing from voices not belonging to the middle-aged white men dominating our entertainment culture is that we’ll be exposed to perspectives unfamiliar to our own.

Or — and one could argue even more importantly — the hope is that viewers who never see their stories told will finally discover the richly rewarding side of TV that only comes from seeing one’s own plight, success and everything in between on a screen, in their home.

The latter may still happen for “Queen Sugar.” I can’t speak to it, precisely, being one of those (almost) middle-aged white men. But what I can say is the story told by creator Ava DuVernay isn’t as significant as how it came about.

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Since snagging the rights to Natalie Baszile’s novel of the same name, the OWN series (produced by Oprah Winfrey) built buzz by doing everything right leading up to its release. Allowing a well-respected independent filmmaker like DuVernay to create and write her own series was step one, but the network, Winfrey and DuVernay didn’t stop there. The “Selma” director hand-picked an all-female roster of directors to shoot eight of the 10 episodes that make up Season 1. DuVernay directed the other two, meaning “Queen Sugar’s” first season was entirely helmed by women.

Queen Sugar Kofi Siriboe & Ethan Hutchison

The value of this to the directors themselves is enormous, as they now have a substantial credit to point to when people claim they don’t have the experience needed to work in TV (or film). But more than that, the decision itself served as a feminist statement to an exclusive industry, proving that talented, experienced and willing women were out there, waiting to be hired.

And the look, feel and overall presentation of “Queen Sugar” cannot be faulted. While not exactly groundbreaking (a la Michelle MacLaren’s work on “Breaking Bad,” Lesli Linka Glatter on “Homeland” or Mimi Leder on “The Leftovers”), there’s an intimacy present that feels human and authentic. DuVernay’s episodes establish specific color palettes that draw out earth tones and feel comfortable showcasing a broader spectrum than many set-based TV shows. (“Queen Sugar” evokes a rural Southern beauty pleasing to anyone appreciative of farmland — or anyone who loves “Rectify.”)

READ MORE: Ava DuVernay’s ‘Queen Sugar’ Trailer: OWN’s Family Drama Is ‘Selma’ Director’s TV Series Debut

Yet that kind of profound personal touch is utterly absent from the story itself. “Queen Sugar,” at its best, finds quiet moments to contemplate the demands of having siblings as well as being someone’s son or daughter. Those fleeting scenes are few and far between in the first three episodes, and they’re often overwhelmed by unbelievable, exaggerated moments of crises. Worse yet, the eye-rolling melodrama in the pilot alone portends less honest introspection and more superficial in-fighting among the Bordelon family to come.

Tracking the soon-to-be intersecting lives of three grown siblings, “Queen Sugar” starts with Nova (Rutina Wesley), a woman whose profession isn’t clear until the second episode; a fact made doubly troubling when we discover she’s a reporter who doesn’t seem to write much. (The days of making your character a reporter to free them from typical 9-to-5 restrictions are over, people. Staff writers gotta grind it out with everyone else.) More important to the show, Nova is dating a white cop, a topical factor bound to factor in soon enough.

Queen Sugar Dondre Whitfield & Dawn-Lyen Gardner

Her sister, Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), works in another open-hours job as the manager of her hubby’s NBA career, on and off the court. Charley’s living large and uncomfortable with it, mainly because her son is getting too accustomed to having everything handed to him. Davis (Timon Kyle Durrett) assures her, “This is our life” — implying they’ll always have money — but the audience, if not Charley, knows better than to accept such obvious foreshadowing.

Finally, we’ve got the black sheep brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a fresh-from-prison father struggling to provide for his young son. Ralph Angel isn’t afraid to pull out his gun when he’s desperate, angered or simply to show that he’s “troubled,” but we see he’s got a good heart because of how protective he is of little baby Blue.

Without getting too spoiler-y, I’ll just say the most predictable of all familial events forces these siblings back together, and while the premiere’s big twist is a necessary function of the story, it also illustrates how flawed “Queen Sugar” is from the get go. What little there is to latch onto is largely gone by Episode 2, and what’s left feels destined for a frustratingly foreseeable future.

After three episodes, the strongest reaction is akin to shouting, “Shouldn’t there be more? Isn’t there more to be said? More to be done? More to be seen?” But there’s little within “Queen Sugar” to make you believe what’s left of Season 1 (and what’s coming in an already greenlit Season 2) will be surprising or satisfying. One can only hope hope the talented souls behind the scenes will find a way to put their significance onscreen.

Grade: C+

“Queen Sugar” premieres Tuesday, September 6 at 10pm on OWN.

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