Queens. ABC. Tuesday, October 19, 10 p.m.
Television writers rooms can run slightly amok. A sexual harassment lawsuit a few years back revealed that the writers on Friends spent considerable time working out a story arc where lovable stud-muffin Joey turned out to be a serial rapist. That one didn't make the air, but other, much-discussed fantasies about the characters Rachel and Monica may have. In fact, that one was so popular that it stretched over to Courteney Cox's next show, the tabloid-journalism drama Dirt.
The writers-room weirdness at ABC's new soap Queens is apparently less salacious but far more eccentric. The loons there have come up with an entire series that crosses St. Paul's lecture to the Corinthians—"When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things"—with a season-long episode of the tawdry old VH1 documentary show Behind the Music. Stranger still: It's actually rather entertaining.
The queens of the title are four age-40ish women who, two decades ago, "stood on top of the world for a hot minute" as the Nasty Bitches, a hip-hop group that had one smash album before the members got in an epic punchout over the romantic attention of their male manager. Now, on the cusp of middle age, they're getting attention again after one of their songs is played on a popular rap radio show. There's even talk of a reunion—except that…
Brianna (rapper Eve, who appeared in the Barbershop movies), is the married mother of five. "I'm a mom," she declares. "I don't rap anymore." And her old nom de hip-hop, Professor Sex, seems ironic since she just caught her professor husband diddling a student who told her not to worry, hubby would be back after finishing his trophy boink: "There's nothing more attractive than mature beauty."
Jill "Da Thrill" (Naturi Naughton, Notorious) has become a devout Catholic, and isn't wild about grinding her hips and shouting about bitches and bling on stage, or the advice of another group member: "Splash some holy water on that ass and keep it moving."
Valeria (Nadine Velazquez, My Name Is Earl and The League) has left music behind to become a daytime TV host in Los Angeles—and then left that job behind when caught playing a dirty on-air trick on a co-host. And Naomi (rapper Brandy and a regular on The CW's The Game) is playing singer-songwriter folk in a Nashville bar. As Valeria observes, they're a collection of "wives, moms, and ambitious hos."
Make that wives, moms, and ambitious hos with issues. The jealousies and enmities that broke the group up in the first place still smolder and, regularly, burst into flames. Estranged children and husbands, secret love affairs and addictions, CAT scans, and all the other afflictions of middle age take their toll. So do the delusions of age. When the Nasty Bitches learn that their prospective reunion is to be fronted by a young flavor-of-the-day rapper named Lil Muffin (Pepi Sonuga, Ash vs. Evil Dead, and, honest to God, something called Cheerleader Death Squad), they're enraged to learn they aren't the headliners. "We are not a sideshow," snaps one member. Retorts a promoter, with ruthless clarity: "You're not a show at all anymore."
That's a lot of storylines to cram into a single hour, but writer-creator Zahir McGhee (Scandal) deftly juggles them all, and the actresses are surprisingly good at keeping their characters from lapsing into cliches or archetypes. (Tim Story, who directed the pilot, was a music video director back in the day and his experience shows in the frequent dance numbers.) Queens is undeniably a soap opera—a highly entertaining one—but it's also a wry and often endearing commentary on both the wisdom and the decrepitude of advancing age. "Hey nonny nonny, my nonny drips in gold," the young rapper exults. Enjoy it while it still shines, babe.