Just when you thought you’d seen every kind of drug-dealing drama you could possibly want, along comes Queen of the South, premiering Thursday on USA, to present a compelling argument — and central figure — for going back to the genre one more time. Queen stars Alice Braga (I Am Legend) as Teresa Mendoza, who begins the series in full high-fashion, power-suited stride. In voice-over narration, she proclaims her proficiency as ruler of “the biggest drug empire in the Western hemisphere,” and you think, Where does the show go from here, other than to show Teresa’s inevitable downfall? Well, back to the beginning is where it goes: The opening hour of the series — the only one USA provided for review — takes us years back to a near-penniless Teresa, living in Mexico and falling in love with a low-level drug dealer.
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The series, based on a thriller novel of the same title by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, makes Teresa both a romantic and a realist. She’s in love with her boyfriend, but she pays attention to his business associates in the cartel he’s mixing with, attention that serves her well when he gets into trouble and she has to chart her own way. Faced with the option of returning to poverty or entering the drug game herself, she chooses the latter, but the pilot episode ends before we see her full immersion into the deadly game. Instead, the hour stages a number of propulsive action scenes that accomplish a couple of things: The show sells us on the idea that pretty, wide-smiling Teresa can become a capable, even vicious, defender of her own hide when threatened, and that Queen of the South might be able to tell a familiar story in a fresh way. The first hour has been beautifully directed by Charlotte Sieling, with lots of lulling silences between action scenes, creating an atmosphere in which anything — any deal, any conversation, any room — can explode at any moment.
What about your conscience: Ought you to feel a pang of guilt for so thoroughly rooting for a woman whose power derives from dealing in substances that cause untold amounts of pain and death? For siding with a character who looks at a scene from Scarface playing on a television (the movie quote was inevitable, wasn’t it?) and takes in its gaudy action as a business plan? (And, you know, it’s not as if there hasn’t been a Lady Scarface in real life.)
“You shouldn’t judge,” Teresa says at the start of the hour. Well, I prefer to judge it in two ways. First, by reminding myself that I’ve rooted for male TV characters just as bad in good shows (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos). Second, my judgment is that I want to see a second episode of Queen of the South to decide whether it’s as good as its premiere.
Queen of the South airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on USA.