Review: 'Atlanta,' 'Queen Sugar' among fall's most promising new series

Robert Bianco
Keith Standfield as Darius,  from left, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks and Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles in 'Atlanta.'

We’ve always been a more interesting country than TV sometimes lets on.

We’re more diverse, as a people and in our tastes and interests, than a handful of broadcast and cable outlets were ever able to accommodate. It took this age of ever-expanding outlets to finally start making room for new voices to be heard, new people to be seen, and new worlds to be explored.

Tuesday night, that drive to widen TV’s embrace brings us two of fall’s most promising new series: FX’s Atlanta (10 ET/PT, **** out of four) and OWN’s Queen Sugar (10 ET/PT, ***½ out of four). Both series are produced by and star African-Americans; both are set in the South; and  both are auteur projects: Selma's acclaimed director Ava DuVernay is behind Sugar, and Atlanta is an artistic breakthrough for its star, writer and creator Donald Glover (Community).

Despite that focus and heritage, these are not “black” shows. They are distinctively, joyously American shows — series that remind us that just as there is no single, shared black experience, there is no one, imaginary “real” America. It’s all the real America, filled with people who have things we share in common and things that set us apart.

What sets the characters apart in Atlanta is poverty: This serio-comedy may be the first series in which poverty is a given, rather than some tragic jumping-off point for a story about drugs, gangs or crime. That absence of money is an ever-present force in Earn Marks' (Glover) life, one that leaves him little time for other pursuits because, as he says, “poor people are too busy trying not to be poor.”

Donald Glover as Earnest 'Earn' Marks, from left, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles and Keith Standfield as Darius in 'Atlanta.'

He sees a way out. His cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry) is a would-be rapper, and Earn is determined to manage him, with the unwanted aid of Alfred’s idiot-savant friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield, who — like his character — grows on you).

Driven by Glover’s charm and throwaway wit, Atlanta both compels and mystifies. We’re purposely kept off balance, in the way the show is shot and the way the story is told. Surprises come around every corner — none greater than how appealing these three characters turn out to be, or how quickly you find yourself rooting for them to succeed.

Nova (played by Rutina Wesley) and Charley (played by Dawn-Lyen Gardner) on 'Queen Sugar.'

While equally beautiful to look at, with its hazy shots of hot sugar-filled fields, Sugar is more conventionally structured. Produced by DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, it's  a familiar drama about a family in crisis told through the eyes of three siblings: Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), the rich, well-educated wife of a Los Angeles basketball star; Nova (Rutina Wesley), a dedicated journalist and social activist; and Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), a ne’er-do-well single father seeking a new start.

Their separate lives are intertwined by scandal and tragedy, forcing them to decide whether the family farm is worth saving. And so they re-establish bonds and reopen old wounds, as each seeks to make sense of the other.

There are moments where Sugar's twists are too easily spotted, but there are far more times when the show, and the spirit, soar. Watch the way Wesley explodes in anger and then sinks softly into grief; listen for the way sound is manipulated until only a small voice breaks through; look for the joy on a young woman’s face when she is given a second chance. This is life, in all its colors.

It’s about time we were able to see more of them.