“Queen Sugar” skirts soapiness, but it does so with such an array of talent, such a specificity of culture and place, and with so much grace that it rises above mere melodrama.
Produced by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”), who also directed the first two episodes that debut Tuesday and Wednesday, this show’s first season is exclusively directed by women, an indication of the untapped talent out there.
The series doesn’t feature any big names — the most recognizable is top-billed Rutina Wesley from “True Blood” — but features nary a false performance from its outstanding, overwhelmingly black cast.
Again, an indication of untapped talent; Wesley is a long way from vampires and a cast with many unfamiliar faces simply lends to the show’s authenticity.
Wesley plays Nova Bordelon, one of three estranged, very different siblings born to Ernest Bordelon (veteran Glynn Turman). Nova lives in a broken-down neighborhood in Louisiana, sells weed, gives readings and herbal remedies (OK, she doesn’t have all of “True Blood” out of her), promotes activism and works part-time as an investigative journalist.
She couldn’t be more different than sister Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), who is an MBA grad managing the career of her basketball-star husband (Timon Kyle Durrett) while raising their teen son Micah (Nicholas L. Ashe) in palatial surroundings.
And then there’s troubled young son Ralph Angel (what a name). Played by Kofi Siriboe, Ralph Angel is six months out of prison, struggling to get by, and living with his aunt Violet (Tina Lifford) and her boyfriend, Hollywood (Omar J. Dorsey), while raising his small boy Blue (Ethan Hutchinson).
All three are reunited when Ernest takes ill. And the bonds of family are tried as the siblings grapple with their future, together and apart.
Based on the novel by Natalie Baszile — though Nova was added for the TV show — “Queen Sugar” follows paths expected and unexpected. Violet, for example, thinks she’s too old for Hollywood; Hollywood vehemently disagrees. Ernest, it turns out, has kept secrets from his kids. And in the midst of it all, Charley has to deal with a high-profile sex scandal involving her husband.
It could all be so cheesy, but somehow it’s not. Credit DuVernay for giving us a sense of Louisiana — and black — life that rises above mere plot manipulations. You believe these people; you care for them. And that’s sweet enough.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
Debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m., then Wednesdays at 10 p.m.