Listen, I get it. The onslaught of new fall TV shows can be quite overwhelming. The odds are that you already have a never-ending lineup that's about to start back up again now that summer's coming to a close, so it can be hard to decide which additional series are actually worth giving an hour of your time to. But as a writer who's reviewed a dozen new shows for this coming fall, if there was only one I could recommend that you watch, it would be the Ava DuVernay-directed Queen Sugar on OWN. Seriously. Episode 1 hits the network tonight, but I've seen the first three and I promise you will love this show. The season's opener introduces us to three siblings moving through life in completely different worlds: True Blood's Rutina Wesley is Nova, a local newspaper reporter and healer who's wrapped up in a relationship with a man living a double life. Then there's Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), the wife of a major Los Angeles NBA star who finds herself and her 15-year-old son caught in a family-shattering scandal mid-episode. And then the youngest sibling is Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a single father raising his ridiculously adorable five-year-old son, Blue, while trying to make ends meet.
As a woman, and especially as a brown woman, I crave stories that I can see myself in.
The three siblings are the children of a southern Louisiana farm owner (still very much a rarity for a black man in the South), but when he becomes ill, their very separate worlds are forced to collide in ways they never expected. I won't spoil much here, but let me warn you, the first episode alone brought me to tears a few times. This is an intense, complicated family drama at its best. In addition to the superb acting and slow-paced-yet-cliffhanger-filled plot, Queen Sugar has three major elements that immediately made me realize I had a new fall addiction. The first: I was over the moon to be gifted a show that feels relatable to me, an average Black person. As a woman, and especially as a brown woman, I crave stories that I can see myself in. While I look up to the Olivia Popes of the TV landscape, the reality is, as much as I love the idea of running the White House in a fly trench coach, that's not my life.
Queen Sugar's characters are more like the people in my own universe: Everyday folks who mourn, who make love, who argue with their family and make each other crack up laughing. They're not women with drug lords for boyfriends or reality TV puppets fighting one another for entertainment. These are real people exhibiting the intricacies of life that are sometimes shown in cable television shows, but rarely with brown faces. As Gardner said at a New York screening of the first episode, "It's a relief to see Black people just be."
The second: The gift of this show is handed to us by DuVernay in a beautifully wrapped package. One of the immediate things I noticed from the very first scene is that the direction and cinematography is stunning. At times it feels more like an indie film than a cable TV show; there are slow, sweeping landscapes of Southern Louisiana's sugar cane fields and intimate shots of the characters that allow us to truly indulge each moment like a simmering bowl of gumbo.
In that opening scene, we meet Nova in bed with her lover; the image of her brown skin looks so beautiful in the light that my breath caught in my throat. I can't remember the last time (if ever) I saw a show that so purposefully and artfully captures the beauty of all skin tones. But the aesthetic goes beyond the actual characters: The laid back pacing, the food, and the lush green fields all make Southern Louisiana feel like it could be a Queen Sugar character in itself. "It's luxurious and deliberate," DuVernay said, at the screening, of the way the show was captured. "You have to sink into it, you have to bathe in it."
I can't remember the last time I saw a show that so purposefully and artfully captures the beauty of all skin tones.
The third element that made me fall in love with Queen Sugar: The soundtrack is ridiculously good. It's far less overt than, say, a TV musical like Empire, but this is not that kind of series. The music so poignantly sets the mood for each and every emotion that I had to know who was behind it. When DuVernay informed us at the screening that the score was created just for the series by 10-time Grammy-nominated soul singer Meshell Ndegeocello — in between recording her next album — it made perfect sense. She has the kind of jazz-infused, heartstring-pulling voice and ear that's made for big and small screen pairings. Remember that scene in Love and Basketball when she croons "You Made A Fool Of Me?" Yea, her musical selections bring on that kind of emotion. Fingers crossed that Queen Sugar will be releasing an official soundtrack that will hold us over between episodes — and seasons, because good news! The show has already been greenlit for a second season. So that's my pitch to you, readers, on why this show is a must-add to your Tuesday nights: It's not only edge-of-your-seat, family drama addictive, but it's also relatable, gorgeous, and lyrical. Happy viewing.