Exposition and explosions dominate the pilot of USA action drama “Queen of the South,” starring Alice Braga (Sonia’s niece) as a female drug kingpin in a violent, macho world. The mix of plot and pyrotechnics is not unusual; after all, the show has just one hour to propel its heroine into her narrative, and it’s determined to do that at all costs. Moreover, the network released only the pilot to critics, which is never a wholly fair way to judge a new show. Here, it’s time enough for Braga (“I Am Legend,” “City of God”), as Teresa Mendoza, to transform herself from a waif-like nobody with Raphaelite hair into a “narca,” first by association with her drug-running lover (Jon Ecker), and then by pure grit after his death.
The show continues USA’s move away from its “blue skies” strategy, in which it offered viewers optimistic, closed-ended original series, and reveals a darker tone aimed at capturing ad-friendly millennials. That worked for “Mr. Robot,” a psychological cyber-thriller that impressed critics and audiences alike. Here, “Queen of the South” examines Teresa’s marginal existence through a cocaine-dusted lens, looking at both the risks and rewards of a life of lawlessness.
If the drama feels at times like it targets underserved viewers by offering a facile female-empowerment angle on Netflix’s “Narcos,” it should also be noted that it weirdly kind of works. Part of that may be due to the fact that the story is rooted in reality, based loosely on Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s “La Reina Del Sur,” which itself was inspired by the deadly “queenpins” of the Mexican narcotics trade.
The pilot tells the end first. At the height of her power, the successful and glamorous Teresa, as beautiful as a knife blade, is assassinated through the window of her sumptuous villa. As her body slowly bleeds out surrounded by spilled cocaine, she begins to tell the story, in voiceover, of how she came to be a narca, starting with her fateful romance with Guero (Ecker), a Texas Chicano who wants to love her. The chemistry between Ecker and Braga never quite approaches what Teresa describes as a feeling “like heroin.” But that’s fine — for the show, at least — because Guero is not long for this world. (Hint: When the protagonist says in a voiceover that “It was too good to last,” it usually is.)
Teresa’s slow metamorphosis from underfed Sinaloa urchin to powerful drug boss is bloody and painful. At the same time, that’s what makes the show tick; much of the appeal of “Queen of the South” is the romantic thrill of seeing the world of guns and gore run by an immaculately dressed fashion plate in gold stilettos, glamorous sunglasses, and a crisp white blazer, so carefully put-together she could be a traficante Barbie.
This transfer of power is signaled in a rape scene after Guero’s death, when young Teresa is attacked by two men with whom she’s already had a disagreement. The way she manages to survive is not just surprisingly satisfying, it borders on brilliant.
Still, the pilot is not exactly thoughtful. “Queen of the South” is more interested in being torrid and splashy than it is in offering the narrative gymnastics of a “Mr. Robot” or the ripped-from-the-headlines verisimilitude of “Narcos.” Rather, winning at the narcotics game seems to be enough for both the show and its heroine. But Braga is riveting as Teresa — believable and empathetic in a way that the rest of the cast isn’t, quite yet. The pilot eschews complexity in some remarkably flat scenes that appear to be included to set up future plotlines — there’s some blather about a gubernatorial race, used as a bargaining chip between an older narco/narca power couple, played by Veronica Falcón and Joaquim de Almeida. Though both actors radiate presence, it’s difficult to justify their appeal when the viewer is merely waiting for Braga to reappear.
The show deviates significantly from its source material — borrowing mostly just the mise-en-scene and the character of Teresa, and then rewriting the rest to fit its own purposes. In the novel, for example, Teresa flees to Spain after the death of her drug-running lover. In the pilot, she ends up in the decidedly less romantic locale of Dallas. Though it would be fascinating to see Braga’s Teresa navigate a Spanish jail, the show’s decision to go to Texas indicates a willingness to engage with some of the thornier political questions around the Mexican-American border. Hopefully no one will suggest building a wall.