I think of summer as my time for financial, spiritual, and emotional recovery from the school year, and a large part of this recovery involves me catching up on all the media I’ve missed. With the slower pace of the season, I’m reading a lot more, and will probably review some of the books I’ve enjoyed soon. Before we get to this, I’m sharing what I’ve missed in terms of television.
If you read this blog, it’s likely that you’re already hooked on Queen Sugar, so I don’t think I need to pitch the show to you (if you’re somehow still not convinced, our friend Ari’s Twitter thread should officially put you on.) If you read this blog, it's also likely that you're a college student or college-aged individual, and may be episodes behind. Instead of talking about how great the storyline is and spoiling anyone who may still be catching up, I want to talk about why I’m already planning my watch party for this season.
Ava DuVernay is going to have to take a step back. I know this sounds like a reason to quit watching the show entirely, but bear with me. Instead of just making space for herself, DuVernay’s decision to split her time between OWN obligations, adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, and Rihanna-Lupita buddy film opens up the field for a new batch of talented directors and producers who will shape this season of Queen Sugar. She’s confirmed that all of Season 2’s episodes will be directed by women, which offers an opportunity that few other shows do to female directors trying to make their mark. While I can’t imagine Queen Sugar departing terribly from DuVernay’s initial vision, I’m excited to see what fresh voices and lenses (perhaps even some from the region) will do for the show’s sophomore season.
No other show is showing the (rural, black) South nearly as well. In Jesmyn Ward’s Buzzfeed piece “This Was The Year America Finally Saw the South,” she connects the threads of increased representation of the modern American South, from Beyonce’s Lemonade to Donald Glover’s Atlanta, of course mentioning Queen Sugar in the process: “Queen Sugar is beautifully constructed and wonderfully paced, and focuses on intimate, everyday dramas that unfold among its characters... I watch, and I come into focus. I am a human being. My experience matters, is legitimate.” Far and wide, Southern critics, artists, and residents are noticing how Queen Sugar gets something right that’s been misunderstood for a long time.
The team behind Queen Sugar resists the urge to over-explain our lives and cultures, and in doing so, creates an organic series that feels handmade for Southern viewers, instead of merely about them. The moments with Nova buying roadside seafood or the way Charley falls back into Louisiana life through what seems like muscle memory aren’t translated into Yankee speak, but instead allowed to breathe on their own. I don’t know if I’ll ever get tired of being able to see Southern life without the tropes about the backwards backwoods or exclusionary pigeonholing on white Appalachians/Texans or black Atlantans/New Orleanians.
I talked about Greenleaf last week, and for all its merits in depicting the highs and lows of modern Southern religion, it’s quite randomly set in Memphis, with no real depiction of the characters’ connection to the city, an unfortunate choice for a place with such a storied black history and population. On the contrary, Queen Sugar decidedly embraces its setting, so much so that rural southern Louisiana becomes one of the most compelling landscapes on the show. For a program that visits the repeatedly captured hills of California, and the over-exposed Ninth Ward of New Orleans, it’s great to see the Gulf Coast culture found far beyond city limits on full and equal display. This integrity of filming rural Louisiana is something I thought I’d never see after True Detective's first season (which is the only one we acknowledge), and I’m oh-so-glad to have been proven wrong.
Monica Macer (formerly Nasvhille's executive producer) is taking over as this season’s showrunner. Anyone who’s a fan of Southern television in the last few years has inevitably run into Nashville, which in some ways has become the best (or at least most comprehensive) pop-culture exploration of the Music City. I love Nashville when it works—it’s both campy and convincing, and the reflections on bro-country’s role in perpetuating homophobia and misogyny make it worth watching after my primary shows. Also, Connie Britton will never not make for good Southern television. Never.
When it doesn’t work, however, it’s often due to its “All Lives Matter” approach to black characters, something that likely must have been all but exhausting for Macer, a black producer who couldn’t just skip through the "magical negro non-plots” like us viewers at home. With Monica Macer joining the team (in part due to Ava DuVernay’s need to prioritize her other projects), one wonders if she’ll benefit from her newfound ability to explore (instead of allude to) Southern racial dynamics, and if Queen Sugar will benefit from her experience on more action-packed shows like Lost and 24.
Queen Sugar is singlehandedly bridging the gap between black and prestige TV. If you’re at all familiar with television criticism, you’ve probably seen how rampant the snobbery is. Many TV critics are, to put it mildly, obsessed with the idea of prestige TV, so much so that they’ve coined terms like “mid-reputable TV” to describe shows that almost make the cut, but not quite. As one could imagine, the implication of the term prestige television is its consumption by “prestigious” viewers—oftentimes those who are whiter and wealthier than OWN’s key viewers.
While it’s important than Queen Sugar simply exists as a television program, I think it’s also important (and encouraging) that it exists as a work of art that is up-to-par with award-winning dramas, which are often off-limits to black actors, directors, and writers. With critics like Slate’s Willa Paskin paying attention to the “grounded and aesthetically sophisticated” program, one can see it going where few black shows have ever been able to. Though (white) critical acclaim is by no means the only measure of Queen Sugar’s artistic merit, it’s an extremely important one where longevity is concerned. Prestige TV shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men get spin-offs like Better Call Saul and continued roles for breakout stars like Elizabeth Moss, while black TV shows that aren’t The Cosby Show or Black-ish rarely do. One important part to getting black shows to translate into continued shows, job opportunities, and career mobility for the black artists working on them, is for them to establish a solid critical reputation. I'm all for this, because I don’t know about you, but I'm beginning to enjoy seeing myself when I turn on the television.
Another important step to Queen Sugar’s continued success is maintaining its fan base, so, make sure you’re watching with a friend or two on June 20th or 21st! Call it a belated Juneteenth kickback, if you have to. Just make sure to share with us below how you’re celebrating the return of the best show on television!