In 1970, TV gave us the tale of a spunky, single young woman who moves to the big city and finds career success, friendship, and love, while rising through a cutthroat business and having to navigate the many men in her work and private lives. Her name was Mary, and there’s now a statue of her tossing her cap into the air in downtown Minneapolis.
Now, we have another story of another spunky, single young woman who moves to the big city and finds career success, friendship, and love, while rising through a cutthroat business and navigating the many men in her work and private lives. This time, her name is Teresa, the city is Dallas, and I sincerely doubt she’ll ever get a statue. The business is drug trafficking, not TV news (wait—there’s a difference?), and while they’re both brunettes, Teresa is the anti-Mary.
Queen of the South is a USA Network original series, based loosely on the successful telenovela La Reina del Sur, which, in turn, was based on the bestselling novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte. At heart, it’s a Horatio Alger story for the 21st Century, with a much higher body count.
Teresa Mendoza (Alice Braga: I Am Legend, Elysium) is a small-town Sinaloa girl getting by through handling cash for the local black-market money changer. Then, she grabs the brass ring in the form of Guero (Jon-Michael Ecker, Narcos), a handsome up-and-coming trafficker working for his grandfather Epifanio Vargas (Joaquim de Almeida: 24, Fast Five), don of the Vargas Cartel. Before long, the happy couple can afford over-the-top interior décor and shiny clothes.
However, Guero gets too entrepreneurial in a line of work where that kind of thinking gets you dead, leaving Teresa on the run from Don Epifanio’s minions. She ends up in Dallas, in the hands of the Don’s estranged wife Camila (Veronica Falcón, a well-established Mexican actress not much seen in El Norte). Camila, who was the brains behind the Vargas Cartel, is now building her own operation north of the Rio Grande as a big “up yours” to her almost-ex, who’s busy running for governor of Sinaloa. She figures that anyone hubby wants to find as badly as he does, Teresa is worth keeping around. These small beginnings launch Teresa on her way to the helicopter, chic white suit, and Modernist villa we see in the opening moments of the first episode.
Even though she’s smallish (5’ 4”), Teresa’s no injured dove or ingénue. She runs like a bull, punches above her weight, and isn’t averse to stabbing or shooting some of the endless number of men who menace her. She was wised up long before Guero found her and wears a semi-permanent wary look. It helps that Alice Braga isn’t as glossy as Kate del Castillo, who played Teresa in the original; she looks like she wouldn’t care about breaking a nail on some sicario’s face.
Hard as nails through-and-through could get a bit much to take over the long haul, but Braga lets us see the fear Teresa masks in public, which helps us identify with her. So, too, does her devotion to Brenda (Justina Machado, Private Practice), her best friend from her Guero days, whose survival Teresa tries to promote by remote control.
Don Epifanio’s smooth enough to make his run for political office credible, but also cold enough to kill his own grandson—and for that matter, to consider his grandson’s up-to-then inoffensive girlfriend a threat worth stomping out with extreme prejudice. Camila’s a successful serial entrepreneur with a laser focus on launching a new startup. Watching her stalk through her new domain in her curve-hugging sheath dresses is like seeing a jaguar or mountain lion hunting for a meal.
The series has the high production values we’ve come to expect from modern TV. It was filmed in Dallas, Costa Rica, Morocco, and Spain—and looks it. Spanish-speaking characters slide in and out of speaking Spanish; prepare yourself for a certain amount of reading your screen.
Don’t expect intricate House of Cards-style plotting here, though. In some ways, this is a distaff 24 in which Our Heroine is able to occasionally eat or take a bath when she’s not seconds from total disaster. Violence is sudden and often bloody. And, as with any telenovela, get comfortable with the concept of “potboiler” and you should have a pretty good time.
The thirteen-episode first season of Queen of the South airs Thursday nights on the USA Network, starting June 23, 2016. You can find streaming video of past episodes on the official series website.
Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. In addition to his international thriller Doha 12 and his near-future thriller South, he’s writing an art crime-centric series of mysteries. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime and archaeology, among other things.