“Queen Sugar” understands that there’s just something about Louisiana. It might be the lush bayou landscape, or the brightly colored buildings populating the French Quarter, or even the vast expanse of green farmland, but not since “Treme” or “True Detective’s” first season has a series utilized the unique topography of this state so gorgeously. This isn’t to say, as they often do, that “Louisiana is its own character” in “Queen Sugar,” but rather that it provides a visual foundation for a show that is decidedly, remarkably visual.
Based on Natalie Baszile’s novel of the same name and premiering two episodes over the course of two days, “Queen Sugar” is of the classic “Six Feet Under” plot variety: the three Bordelon siblings must return to manage their childhood home, a plantation in Louisiana, after their father passes away. The series arrives with clear prestige ambitions and star power: it was created and developed by the famously Oscar-nomination-snubbed Ava DuVernay (“Selma”) and produced by Oprah Winfrey. It airs on Oprah’s eponymous network. Laudably, the adaptation will also feature an all-female directorial team for its 13-episode first season. But, above all else, DuVernay proves to be “Queen Sugar” ’s real star.
DuVernay, who wrote and directed the pilot, possesses an incredible eye for shot composition; she understands how breathtaking the natural background and light of her setting is, and doesn’t force the issue when she doesn’t have to (looking at you, “Mr. Robot”). It’s also simply a clinic in shooting, framing and lighting Black actors: the first shot of the series opens on Nova’s (Rutina Wesley, “True Blood”) dreadlocked hair, then takes its time photographing her body as she wakes up in the just-barely-there light of New Orleans at dawn. It’s a gorgeous and powerful opening statement for a series that operates primarily in the spaces between lines of dialogue, in those moments when both nothing and everything is said all at once.
There are, unfortunately, some missteps here and there. The writing does not often live up to the direction, with some generously served melodramatic clichés; a clumsily staged scene at a basketball game in the pilot doesn’t hit quite as hard as it should have, and there are an unfortunate number of distracting musical cues. For a show seemingly invested in silence and visual storytelling, the errant, “Friday Night Lights”-esque twang of a guitar or a poorly judged soundtrack choice undermines the potential raw power of a scene’s intent.
The show’s three principals, however, are considerably top-notch. Wesley shows off her formidable chops as Nova, the ostensibly strong sibling with a few secrets that might just ruin her projected emotional fortitude. Dawn-Lyen Gardner’s (“Heroes”) Charley is the family’s black sheep, the wealthy, successful wife of a Los Angeles basketball star who also hasn’t visited her family in years. Charley’s plot details are the most melodramatic, but her story contains snippets of interesting and potentially fascinating ideas: specifically, at the story’s beginning, her conversation with some other players’ wives about whether they should star in a “Real Housewives”-type reality series or not portends some thematic promise. Kofi Siriboe (“Awkward”) stars as Ralph Angel, a name that couldn’t be better. His understated performance of a character that, in another creator’s hands, would have been destined to become a trope, is quietly heartbreaking. DuVernay, as mentioned before, finds interesting and exciting ways of shooting her three leads, an impressive technical achievement that should be noticed. And, of course, there’s an adorable toddler, which is a net positive for any show.
“Queen Sugar” will most often be compared to other family dramas like “Parenthood” or “Friday Night Lights,” but its unique vision and scope will hopefully coax it out from under their towering shadows. “FNL,” too, used its camera in interesting, if sometimes jarring, ways, but “Queen Sugar” ’s cinematography is currently the most impressive thing about it. Underwhelming writing aside, its merits are too abundant to ignore completely. “Queen Sugar” shows great potential to mature into something refreshing, something cinematic — something great.