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‘Queen Sugar’ review: Big liberties taken in OWN version of Natalie Baszile novel

Rutina Wesley, left, and Dawn-Lyen Gardner play sisters

Rutina Wesley, left, and Dawn-Lyen Gardner play sisters who don't always play nice in "Queen Sugar." Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment / Skip Bolen

THE SHOW “Queen Sugar”

WHEN | WHERE 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 6, and Wednesday, Sept. 7, on OWN


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ernest Bordelon (Glynn Turman) has been planting sugar cane on his 800-acre plantation in St. Josephine, Louisiana, for as long as anyone can remember. But after he suffers a stroke, his children have some big decisions to make. Oldest daughter Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) has another crisis — her basketball-star husband is implicated in a sex scandal. Son Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) is just out of jail. Estranged sibling Nova (Rutina Wesley) hasn’t had anything to do with either of them for years. Aunt Violet (Tina Lifford) is peacemaker, but old family friend Remy Newell (Dondré Whitfield) knows the family dynamics and how to plant a field.

This 13-episode series is co-produced and written by Ava DuVernay (“Selma”).

MY SAY “Queen Sugar” is based on the bestselling novel by Natalie Baszile, who spent a decade writing — and some of those years deeply researching — both book and the intricacies of the sugar cane agribusiness. You will not be too surprised to learn that DuVernay neglects to offer a tutorial on cane irrigation, at least in the first three episodes. “Sugar” also opens with a languorous shot of a smooth curved, naked back, covered with rope twist dreads (Wesley's).  Here’s how the Baszile novel opened: “Three days ago, Charley Bordelon and her 11-year-old daughter, Micah, locked up the rented Spanish bungalow with its cracked tiled roof and tumble of punch-colored bougainvillea and left Los Angeles for good.”

Nice open, nice line  — but you now know which one didn't make the final cut. 

Yes, liberties have been taken, big ones, and it’s up to the book’s fans to decide just how sensible those changes are. But TV series are designed for TV fans, and with them in mind, DuVernay has mostly made the right choices. By expanding the cast of characters, she’s expanded the dramatic possibilities. Like OWN’s big hit “Greenleaf,” this also opens with a family tragedy, while each sibling arrives with a suitcase full of their own rattling skeletons — past grievances, past failures, even past jail sentences. Instead of an 11-year-old daughter, Charley here has a 15-year-old son. With that cheating spouse in her rearview mirror, that fallow stretch of Louisiana farmland looks pretty good compared to the bright lights back home in Los Angeles, where only humiliation awaits her.

DuVernay also honors Baszile’s book by honoring her characters. “Queen Sugar” is basically a coming-home-to-the-land series, where dignity, faith and honor are rooted in that rich loam soil. Life, death, regeneration — and a history sometimes too painful for words — also are part of it. DuVernay and Baszile are easily in accordance on this point: Dignity must be served.

But what’s good for characters’ souls isn’t always good for story, and three episodes in, “Queen Sugar” still struggles to find one, or at least one that gets much beyond the recap above. The pace can be languid to the point of torpor. A bayou tempo is baked into these episodes, which is fine for the bayou, less so for commercial TV. Amid this languor, the characters don’t emerge beyond initial impressions either — Ralph Angel as the hothead, struggling with fatherhood and manhood; Nova as the blithe and independent spirit, with a fierce sense of justice; Aunt Violet as a wiser or at least calmer presence, who (nevertheless) has a boyfriend with a roving eye.

Charley, you can be certain, will find that inner resolve that will ultimately make her Queen Sugar.

There are 13 episodes to figure all this out and flesh all them out, too. In the meantime, admire what’s at least on-screen — a fine, mostly African-American cast — and off-screen as well. DuVernay, who directed the first two episodes, handed other episodes off to an all-female director roster — including Tina Mabry, Neema Barnette and Tanya Hamilton — which has probably never happened on a TV series before. If “Sugar” is a hit for OWN, the triumph is theirs also.

BOTTOM LINE Good newcomer, good cast and star showrunner. What’s missing, at least in the early episodes, is a propulsive story and pace to match.

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