The music video that opens ABC’s new drama “Queens” lays it on thick. Each member of the Nasty Girls — Naomi, aka Xplicit Lyrics (Brandy); Valeria, aka Butter Pecan (Nadine Velazquez); Jill, aka Da Thrill (Naturi Naughton); and Brianna, aka Professor Sex (Eve) — struts out of a burning mansion, across the bow of a luxurious yacht, and through a chorus line of half-nude dancers without missing a step. Directed by Tim Story, whose ’90s résumé boasts videos for Tyrese, ’N Sync and Ginuwine, the video for “Nasty Girl” knows what it has to do to evoke memories of the specific window in hip-hop history it’s trying to capture.
In a key difference from Peacock’s superficially similar comedy “Girls5eva,” the track “Queens” introduces here isn’t parodying its respective genre. Each of the women’s rap verses is sharp and distinct, making clear their talent as both individuals and a swaggering collective. So when the show picks up 20 years after the group’s breakup and almost immediately finds a way to make them the Nasty Girls 2.0, the speed with which they embrace the reunion isn’t completely unbelievable. Of course they’d want to come back together. Whatever happened before, they were just too good not to give it another shot.
As directed by Story and written by creator Zahir McGhee (“Scandal”), the pilot episode of “Queens” is efficient, dramatic and intriguing without feeling overstuffed, which is a feat given its many intersecting plotlines. In that respect, too, the core acting foursome of “Queens” bring crucial skill and personality to a series that, given the pilot’s alternately sincere and soap-adjacent tones, will inevitably ask them to contribute something different to every scene. Naughton, tasked with embodying both the bombastic woman formerly known as Da Thrill and her meeker present-day incarnation, is an immediate standout. Brandy and Velazquez ground their inherently more dramatic characters, while Eve finds pockets of humor no matter how rough things might be going for hers. And while Velazquez and Naughton hold their own through the actual musical numbers, it’s genuinely special to watch musicians like Brandy and Eve let loose in the way only they can.
It’s understandable that the first episode of “Queens” would make it a priority to flesh out its world beyond the Nasty Girls themselves, introducing obstacles and/or allies in their former manager (Taylor Selé), Brianna’s cheating husband (RonReaco Lee) and the hot new rapper who makes their comeback possible (Pepi Sonuga). Given how compelling the quartet is on its own, though, these extraneous elements of the pilot unsurprisingly are also its most underbaked
It’s entirely possible that “Queens” could give in to its more melodramatic impulses and fly off the rails before too long. But it’s also encouraging to watch simpler scenes — like the one in which the performers trade freestyle bars that reflect the realities of their lives as more experienced 40-year-old women — and feel like “Queens” understands what already sets it apart.
“Queens” premieres Tuesday, October 19 at 10 pm on ABC.