All fairytales have to end some time — especially when a massive drug empire expire is involved, as the action-packed premiere of the new USA drama Queen of the South proves. Although the show’s title might sound like a Bravo reality show about a sorority mom in Alabama, it actually follows a tough-as-nails Mexican woman named Teresa (Alice Braga) as she gets swept up in the drug world after hooking up with a cartel member, Güero (Jon Ecker), who defends her honor after exchanging just one seductive look. It’s romantic and exciting and… completely doomed.
From the very beginning, Queen of the South — adapted from the telenovela La Reina del Sur — relies on its violence to hold your attention. The pilot kicks off with a scene from present day of Teresa getting shot before it flashes back in time for the rest of the episode to show how she became the titular, powerful — but not invincible, apparently — queen of the south. It’s a journey that involves a rape scene, a few glimpses of men’s brains being blown out, and blood. Plenty of blood. This show is not here to glamorize the drug world. It’s here to warn against it.
This show won’t be this summer’s Mr. Robot, its USA Network sibling and last year’s breakout hit. There’s nothing that sets it apart from, well, most shows, and any attempt to break out of the typical drama structure comes off as forced and unnecessary. Teresa’s cheesy visions of her future self distract from the tense scenes in which they appear, and a melodramatic voiceover has a similar effect. But Braga is fun to watch as the driven Teresa, a character fighting to stay alive in a world ridden with booby traps, and the first episode is filled with legitimate thrills that adequately convey how chaotic — and deadly — being cartel-adjacent is.
What they choose to do with Braga’s character, though, will determine whether Queen of the South becomes queen of the drug dramas. For now, it acts as if making their kingpin a woman is groundbreaking, enough of a draw to make up for its heavy use of tired tropes. It’s not. Watching Teresa repeatedly escape death is gripping, but it’s not a replacement for character depth, and it’s definitely not an excuse to be lazy when it comes to the show’s other elements. What Queen needs to decide is if it wants to tell the complicated origin story of a drug lord, Breaking Bad-style, or if it’s fine being a shallow-but-entertaining thriller. Right now, it’s trying to be both, and, as the first episode shows, straddling the line can be a one-way ticket to ruin — just ask Güero. C+