The central conflict of Queen Sugar’s first season coalesces in the course of two arguments, one from the depths of bereavement and the other from the eye of the storm. Before the former begins in earnest, Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) and her sister, Charley (Dawn Lyen-Gardner), stop on the side of the road in rural south Louisiana, surveying the fresh crab, crawfish, snapper, and redfish a woman hawks from her truck. “You don’t remember?” Nova asks, as Charley, long ensconced in her Los Angeles mansion, startles at the slippery creatures in a wide, wet cooler. The local fare, familiar to those of us for whom Interstate 10 constitutes a northern tropic, is for their father’s repast—a funeral tradition that dates back in these parts to the era of slavery—and when Charley hires caterers for the occasion, Nova erupts in anger:
“You don’t know a damn thing about nothin’ except wastin’ money. How long you been gone? Huh? You ain’t been gone that long, how come you don’t remember how it’s done? ... We serve comfort food to those who need comfort, and we do it with our own hands! That’s how our family does a repast! And we certainly don’t pay our respects with American Express.”
By the time the hurricane comes ashore in the season’s eighth episode, with the Bordelons hunkering down in their Aunt Violet’s (Tina Lifford) living room, it’s Charley’s turn to scorch the Earth. She quails at the thought of her son, Micah (Nicolas L. Ashe), staying with Nova in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward when he enrolls in private school, and when pressed she lays her cards on the table: “I’m not going to put my son in a position to be killed, shot, or in need of a $10,000 bailout,” she snipes. “You know what, you?” Nova retorts, returning to the implicit accusation of their earlier fight. “You a bougie bitch. You know that, right?”
Here as elsewhere, with petty thefts and high-powered attorneys, California glamour and Louisiana charm, creator Ava DuVernay’s family drama, based on the novel by Natalie Baszile, announces its interest in American television’s unspoken divide: not race, but class, or at least their intersection, and the cost exacted when popular culture declines to discuss the complications.
Along with Atlanta’s Donald Glover, black-ish’s Kenya Barris, and Insecure’s Issa Rae, then, DuVernay has emerged as an emblem of “diverse” or “inclusive” television’s foremost merit, which is the willingness to narrate heretofore unseen stories—of a sprawling black family trying to save their father’s farm, of a Princeton-educated talent manager struggling to find his place, of the code-switching black professionals must practice in order to advance their careers. These are stories inextricable from race and racism, of course, but they’re also attuned to issues of wealth and status that the medium’s mostly affluent white characters cannot see, or prefer to ignore. Black artists are behind the finest examinations of class on TV, and it’s high time the rest of us reckon with the aforementioned series’ transformative possibilities.
It’s no surprise, really, that television—first popularized at a time of economic expansion and widespread prosperity, fueled by the selling of products and the taking of profits—should neglect class as a fundamental feature of American life. With a few telling exceptions, namely in the uncertain era of All in the Family and Sanford and Son, the medium’s default position, from Leave It to Beaver to Modern Family, has been to reflect our own, persistent belief that we’re all “middle class,” defining “middle class” so broadly (say, as any income between $20,000 and $200,000 a year) that the term becomes meaningless. In sitcoms, especially, the nation might seem near-Soviet in its uniformity: A picket fence around every homestead, a chicken in every pot.
The more tattered aesthetic of Roseanne and Married with Children—near-contemporaneous artifacts from another uncertain era—appears, on occasion, to challenge this orthodoxy, but the fact that both remain so memorable—against the dozens and dozens of forgettable “middle class” sitcoms made since—is enough to suggest their uncommonness; if anything, their present-day descendants, like ABC’s “The Middle,” are rarer now than ever before. The notion that many Americans pinch pennies for mortgage payments, or live in fear of the medical crisis, the pink slip, that results in financial ruin, is more or less absent from our most popular form of cultural expression. To watch TV is to wonder if being poor is the real shame of the nation, hidden away so the neighbors won’t see, the madwoman in our attic.
Which might explain why Atlanta is so bracing: In Glover’s series, money is life’s unacknowledged constant only in its absence. His character, the aptly named Earn, chases club promoters for a fraction of his promised pay, and twists himself in knots to take his girlfriend, Van (Zazie Beetz), to dinner: As he says in the season finale, unrolling a wad of cash from his cousin and client, Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry), “It’s that thing we always need.” The point is not to glorify wealth, exactly—Earn and Van’s well-to-do hosts, in the extraordinary “Juneteenth,” are among the most compromised characters to appear in Atlanta, sleepwalking through a marriage that’s been reduced to its mutual benefits—but to acknowledge that money is no marginal concern for those that do not have it. Against TV’s tacit argument that affluence is inherently dramatic, the image of Earn marveling at the two $100 bills he keeps for himself is poetic proof of the opposite: When we treat making ends meet as a subject worthy of the art form, we reveal characters and stories too often cloaked in wealth’s long shadow.
Class, of course, is not defined by income alone. It is, as in “Juneteenth,” a carefully calibrated performance, mixing money, manner, heritage, education, fashion, language, and countless other factors, a complex set of social markers that only appears seamless. Earn and Van, for instance, have learned to nod sagely at polemical playwrights and amateur white Africanists, quieting their urge to call bullshit; with Alfred and Darius (the sublime Keith Stanfield), they’re more open but less fluent, placing phone calls about piss tests and legal troubles as if translating from another tongue.
In a similar vein, Issa’s friend, Molly (Yvonne Orji), in Insecure, has resigned herself to the unjust requisites of the office, where she encourages a new hire to “switch it up” for their white co-workers; when she develops an interest in a man she considers beneath her “level,” by contrast, she flees into the arms of a suited stud she meets through a prestigious dating service called The League. “Girl, these League niggas have been vetted,” she explains, code-switching in two directions. “And Jered didn’t even go to college.” Issa’s skeptical, but she’s not innocent, either: In a gorgeous montage from the same episode, focused on the couple’s sofa, her relationship with her boyfriend, Lawrence (Jay Ellis), waxes and wanes with issues of work, and worth, that no middle-class idyll can capture. “I know I haven’t been my best self lately,” he admits. “In my career, or with you.”
Even in black-ish, where the wealth and professional success of Dre and Bow Johnson (Anthony Anderson and Tracee Elliss Ross) is built into the sitcom’s premise, affluence and its consequences are the subject of brief clashes and comic debates. Despite the title, then, black-ish is as much about class as it is about race: Its animating force is the balance the Johnsons attempt to strike between the ease afforded by their occupations (Dre’s in advertising, Bow’s a surgeon) and the desire to instill certain values (hard work, generosity, fairness) in their children. Though always framed by Dre’s voiceover narration, with it focus on defining blackness by reference to personal and political history, the distinction in flux throughout the series is that between being secure and being spoiled, between having too much and having nothing at all. With Dre’s parents, Ruby (Jenifer Lewis) and Pops (Laurence Fishburne), acting as the two-part chorus, black-ish is, in essence, an argument for keeping class front and center in our culture and in our lives—most especially, perhaps, when we stop having to worry about money.
You don’t remember how it’s done? Nova’s question in Queen Sugar, her accusation, gets at the heart of the matter: When the default position on TV is no longer whiteness—with its common assumption of shared middle-class status, its traditional aesthetic of suburban homes and leafy lanes—stories that refuse to ignore the intertwined histories of race and class in America no longer seem so impossible. In part, this is, as Nova suggests, a function the past; to groups for whom equality of opportunity is no guarantee, whether women, people of color, or LGBTQ people, the social hierarchies so often sidestepped on TV aren’t marginal to the narrative. They are the narrative.
But it is also a function, it must be said, of creative courage, as if, already at work challenging the most prominent of the medium’s orthodoxies—that TV’s protagonists are, in the main, white—Barris, DuVernay, Glover, and Rae are ready to challenge its unspoken one. In Queen Sugar, at least, this finds its most precise and delicate expression when Nova, Charley, and their brother, Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), wrangle over the cost of their father’s casket. They haggle over the price and how to split it, discuss complicated arrangements of loans and credit card charges, but when the funeral home’s director balks at Nova’s desire to sew a small pouch into the satin, they dismiss him in unison. To pay close heed to the class divide on TV is not to accept or encourage it, but to bridge it, a form of healing that Atlanta, black-ish, Insecure, and Queen Sugar suggest is in able hands.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.