Oprah Winfrey’s TV channel appears to be coming into its . . . own. After an unsteady start in 2011, with lots of reality shows junking up its schedule, OWN has begun to hone a sharper identity with its two latest scripted efforts. “Greenleaf,” the drama set in a Memphis megachurch that premiered earlier this summer, has been a significant ratings success, and “Queen Sugar,” which premieres Tuesday night at 10, seems destined to follow suit; the network has already renewed both of them.
Both shows are soap operas — soapras? — that follow black families through familiar financial, emotional, and legal turmoil. But “Queen Sugar,” which was created by “Selma” director Ava DuVernay based on Natalie Baszile’s novel, is a different kind of soap, one that moves slowly through each plot point and adds artistic and intimate flourishes whenever possible. “Greenleaf” is a conventional product, in that it follows common genre pacing and patterns; “Queen Sugar,” which tracks the Bordelon family of Louisiana, is willfully stylized and leisurely, as it spends the first three episodes gradually bringing us close to the three adult Bordelon siblings and bringing them back into one another’s orbit.
Just watch the first scene on Tuesday night, as the camera seems to caress the body of Nova, played by Rutina Wesley of “True Blood.” For three minutes, we see Nova wake up, get out of bed, and greet her naked lover, who helps her dress, all while Meshell Ndegeocello’s lush “Faithful” plays on the soundtrack. It’s not exactly what you’ll find at the opening of most TV melodramas, which tend to lead with more scandal-driven material to grab our attention. It’s a bit indulgent. But it familiarizes us with Nova, lets us watch her at her most vulnerable, and it instantly tells us that the show is going to develop its own thick, unhurried atmosphere. The script is spotted with its share of clichés and predictable turns, which is unfortunate; but the filming style — including some shots of sugar fields — is elegant and suggestive. Occasionally, the soundtrack is too assertive, but I’m hoping that will subside over the season.
Nova is an investigative journalist, but she’s also a mystic and a pot dealer. Her brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe) was recently released from jail and is a single dad struggling to stay afloat. And Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) is the glamorous one, a business whiz who’s married to an NBA star and currently being courted by a “Real Housewives”-like reality show. After a scandal involving her husband in LA, Charley returns home to New Orleans, where her father runs a struggling 800-acre sugarcane farm. Back together again, the siblings face a few significant events that unearth old conflicts — particularly between Nova and Charley — and trigger some new ones.
Gardner is well-cast as Charley, but Wesley provides the most spark as the often angry Nova, who self-righteously tries to exclude Charley from family life. She’s also the least easily categorized character, thanks to the incongruous and unusual life she has cobbled together. She may come from a world ruled by sugarcane, but I’m glad she’s not particularly sweet.
Starring Rutina Wesley, Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Kofi Siriboe, Tina Lifford, Omar J. Dorsey, Dondre Whitfield, Bianca Lawson. On OWN, Tuesday at 10 p.m.