Tired of sensationalistic soaps filled with the cynical spectacle of selfish people sabotaging friends and family to get ahead in life? Oprah Winfrey’s OWN has the tonic for you. Queen Sugar, which debuts with a two-night premiere, is a melodrama with a refreshing point of difference: a family saga on which loved ones labor together for individual and shared redemption. Like Greenleaf, it’s Empire for the soul — sans the Jesus.
Adapted by filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma) from Natalie Baszile’s novel, Queen Sugar concerns three siblings: Nova (Rutina Wesley), investigative journalist, pot dealer, and mystic-herbalist (quite a combo!); Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), shrewd M.B.A. wife to an NBA superstar; and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), ex-con and single dad. In a key thematic moment, Charley’s high-society L.A. friends beg her to lend her celebrity to a reality show. Then a scandal blows up her life, and her messy response blows up her image. She returns home to New Orleans, where another crisis and her father’s failing sugarcane farm call her back to relationships gone fallow and values long neglected.
In truth, everyone on Queen Sugar is flawed and needs repair, from the most interesting character (Nova, a bundle of righteousness and contradiction) to the weakest (Ralph Angel, a thin cutout). The acting ranges from intensely solid to intensely shallow, and the dialogue is often cliché and tinny. But the characters resonate, and DuVernay finds scenarios and images that suffuse the show with exceptional emotional power. Of particular resonance, a beautiful, silent deathbed scene in which three generations of men come together for an embrace full of recognition of history, damage, grace, and gratitude. There’s winning, bittersweet beauty in the fields of Queen Sugar, and opportunity for greater things to grow. B
Queen Sugar premieres Sept. 6 at 10 p.m. ET on OWN.
A version of this story appears in the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now.