In the final moments of “1999,” the pilot episode of ABC’s Queens, Brianna (Eve) perfectly describes the latest iteration of Nasty Bitches, a fictional all-women hip-hop group that dominated the airwaves more than two decades ago. “So a mom, a washed-up musician, a disgraced daytime TV host, a lesbian church lady, and a young rapper fresh out of rehab are going on a world tour?” Though I was interested from the get-go, it was this line that really made me crack up, ensuring I would probably continue watching from week to week to see how the story unfolds.
Queens, which premiered Tuesday night, covers a lot of ground in its hourlong inaugural episode. Like the episode title, it’s the year 1999 when we first meet the dynamic group, which is premiering a new music video that feels a lot like a subtle homage to both Mariah Carey’s “Honey” and that time Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes burned down Andre Rison’s mansion. (Basically, it’s giving ’90s realness, honey.)
In quick succession, we see the women’s current-day realities. Brianna, who once rapped about dropping it like it’s hot, is now a wife and mother to five children. Jill (Naturi Naughton) is having an extramarital affair, although that’s not the only secret she’s hiding from her husband. Valeria (Nadine Velazquez) has become a daytime TV star, but that gig comes to a screeching halt when it’s discovered that she spiked her fellow colleagues’ morning coffee in order to take the anchor’s job. And then there’s Naomi (Brandy), who is trying to rejuvenate her fledgling singing career and reconnect with a daughter she neglected due to her constant pursuit of fame.
Though the show’s title feels uninspired, the pilot for Queens is incredibly strong all around, from the writing to the acting. Zahir McGhee (Scandal), creator of the series, has crafted a show that focuses on the aftermath of superstardom. Queens takes place two decades after the height of Nasty Bitches’ fame, which feels appropriate. We’re just now reexamining how messed up celebrity culture was in that period of time — see recent cultural conversations about Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, etc. The decision to cast women who have actually been in the same industry as their characters — Brandy, Eve, Naturi — adds an additional level of authenticity to the show. At its heart, Queens is a redemption story, and who doesn’t love a comeback?
The show’s central tension is put in place when the up-and-coming rapper Lauren "Lil Muffin" Rice (Pepi Sonuga) samples an old Nasty Bitches song, catapulting her to fame and renewing interest in the hip-hop group. But though she is wildly successful, Lauren has no real control over her career or image, as is pointed out when the Nasty Bitches meet the star for the first time in order to hash out plans for a joint performance at the BET Awards. “We are not a sideshow,” Valeria says. “You’re not a show at all anymore,” rebuts Lauren’s manager Charlie (Hunter Burke) dismissively. “It’s not 1999 when you had your one big album. Now you’re [scoffs] whatever you are.” The show does a great job of highlighting how women are commodified by the music industry and how quickly one can fall from grace when there’s no one around to protect you from harm. “I see some things haven’t changed. Just a bunch of straight men shaping the image of a young, impressionable artist,” says Jill shortly after that encounter. Just how much the precarious situations in which women artists often find themselves in haven’t changed is put on display in a shocking scene later in the episode.
Queens has another thing going for it: the music. Swizz Beatz, co-creator of Verzuz, acts as the show’s executive music producer. From “Nasty Girl,” the catchy episode opener, to the mesmerizing and smooth vocals of Brandy’s Naomi as she sings on “Hear Me” toward the first episode’s end, you’ll likely have the songs from Queens taking up space in your brain even after the credits roll. Hopefully, the show doesn’t go the route of Empire, Fox’s foray into the drama of the music industry, which had incredible talent behind the music and yet somehow still featured songs that were often bad and forgettable.
Queens has everything going for it — a stellar cast, a promising story, and infectious music. With a strong debut, one can only hope the show continues to build upon the promising foundation. “We built a really solid season to start that keeps the show in the world of the pilot, of the fun and heightened reality, and then… we’re going to give you some special music and music videos,” McGhee, the show’s creator, told TVLine recently. “You won’t be able to predict what an episode looks like week to week, which I’m excited about.” ●