A Family to Watch - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
A Family to Watch

There is too much television, if I can state the obvious. Every year Hollywood produces more than 400 scripted shows to be broadcast and streamed. Clearly, no Emmy voter or viewer can keep track. As a result, many good shows never find their audience while a few familiar series keep getting all the attention — Game of Thrones, Veep, This Is Us, to name a few that don’t particularly do it for me.

Some of the best writing, acting and directing is happening in surprising places, such as OWN, the network Oprah Winfrey started in 2011. And its key show Queen Sugar stands out: original, relevant and addictively binge-worthy. Who knew you could have excellent drama based on the struggles of a farming family in Louisiana?

Thankfully, season 1 is available on Hulu and Amazon, while the current season 2 — we’re 7 of 16 episodes in — can be viewed on OWN and Amazon. Moreover, the best news of the past week was that the show has been renewed for season 3.

Put simply, Queen Sugar is a family drama in the mold of Brothers & Sisters and, in some ways, Friday Night Lights. Both shows were personal favorites, because they captured the joy and misery of the messy everyday life inside a family. The characters seemed all too real, like true siblings and parents. The arguments felt as heated as they can get in a house full of blood relatives. The undeniable love seemed to be as deep as it can go.

The twist in this show created by the accomplished director Ava DuVernay is that this is a black family — the Bordelon family — in the deep south. The other twist is that the main stage is a run-down sugar cane farm in need of a farmer with the knowledge to bring the soil back to life.

Queen Sugar revolves around two sisters, powerfully played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner and Rutina Wesley. They have one brother, the excellent Kofi Siriboe. Each had gone their own way, leaving behind each other, their father, and his farm. When the series began we saw them coming together, uneasily, after the death of their dad. Here they were, the introverted ex-convict Ralph Angel; the wealthy Los Angeles socialite Charley married to a cheating NBA player; and the intense journalist Nova. With little in common but their heritage — just like many siblings — they were forced to deal with what was left to them.

In the first season the three went back and forth between their separate lives and their new shared reality around the farm. We were introduced to a large cast that is very good all around, specifically actress Tina Gifford (known from Scandal) playing aunt Violet, the matriarch battling some demons herself. Worth mentioning, too, is Ethan Hutchison, a child actor so capable it’s hard to believe he is only 6 years old. His character Blue, son of Ralph Angel, steals every scene he’s in. While Queen Sugar so far has been unjustly ignored by the big award shows, at least Ethan has been recognized this year with two major young actor awards.

In the current season the lead characters all find themselves in Louisiana, often too close for comfort. Their fights are epic, their laughter is infectious. There is a lot of drama and crying, too. What connects it all is the quality of the writing. It always does, when a show or film is truly compelling. DuVernay has gathered a writer’s room where over-writing is a big no. There is lot of silence in Queen Sugar. That doesn’t mean the show is slow, but it does create space for the viewer to think and feel, without being told what to think or feel. Like white space on a page, the words have room to breathe and linger.

“Every time I looked at him I could tell he wanted me to be a better man,” says Ralph Angel in a recent episode about his late father during the prayer to start a joyful family dinner. The silence before and after that loaded realization make it so powerful. Then he interrupts his own prayer to announce: “That’s what I’m gonna do now.”

The trouble that follows should not be divulged. There are too many intricately linked story lines, and discussing any of them could potentially spoil the plot. Let’s just say that confident writing and superb acing can lead to greatness on TV. The — all female — directors whom DuVernay chose, have gold in their hands. And they know how to cherish it. Their show has some overlaps with other compelling “black” shows on television right now, like Atlanta and Black-ish. Yet Queen Sugar feels deeper, more realistic, and more familiar — even though it’s the hyper-specific reality of one southern family struggling with life.

All significant characters in Queen Sugar are black; only small roles such as police officers and reporters are played by white actors. Still, this is an inclusive story about an American family, made for anyone who likes good television. Racism, Black Lives Matter, the police abuse of young black men: these issues do come up, as they presumably would in an African-American family living today. But they are not what drives Queen Sugar.

Much more important are fundamental questions about fatherhood, marriage, the value of work, self-reliance, growing up. And there is one over-arching theme familiar to anyone with a family: the hard love that connects the Bordelons.

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