Unlike most spy thrillers in which statuesque, expensively dressed women show an unexpected talent for kicking the bejeezus out of armed men, the South African series “Queen Sono” also devotes a lot of time to historical and geopolitical debate, or at least sloganeering. An armed band that might be terrorists or might be freedom fighters declares its intent to liberate Africa from “the clutches of colonization.” A hapless do-gooder calls out the primary villain for being a neocolonialist, and is quickly abducted with extreme prejudice.
The real colonizer, of course, is the one behind the screen: Netflix, where the six episodes of this sprawling, earnest, likable show debut on Friday. “Queen Sono” is Netflix’s first script-to-screen commission from Africa, another small step in the streaming giant’s takeover of international television and a significant leap in the visibility of African-made stories in America and elsewhere. That “Queen Sono” is unremarkable as an action and crime drama doesn’t cancel the excitement of seeing something new (if it’s indeed new to you).
As with other test cases for narrative globalization, like the South Korean “Kingdom” or the Scandinavian “Ragnarok,” you can sense the bending of local traditions toward Netflix norms: the six-episode season; the emphasis on action and mystery; the clockwork interjections of a Westernized, universally intelligible wry humor. But “Queen Sono,” created by the South African writer and performer Kagiso Lediga, doesn’t compromise when it comes to rooting its story close to home.
The title character, played by Pearl Thusi she was the lawyer and C.I.A. agent Dayana Mampasi in ABC’s “Quantico” is an undercover agent for a South African intelligence unit, a small and beleaguered group tasked, in somewhat cartoonish fashion, with protecting the country and the continent from every kind of threat. (Its size five core members makes you wonder whether the budget for “Queen Sono” wasn’t as generous as it was for other Netflix series.)
Queen is an ace at hand-to-hand combat, but she, and the show, are saddled with an omnipresent back story about her mother, an activist killed in mysterious circumstances when Queen was a child. Her anger and guilt over her mother’s death tie into the show’s overall mood, a simmering anguish in which the ecstatic promise of South Africa’s liberation under Nelson Mandela has ebbed into stasis and corruption, with former heroes now busily pocketing bribes. The show’s embodiment of that outlook, and the motor of the season’s plot, is an alliance (perhaps plausible, but presented in awfully broad strokes) between a squad of black-nationalist revolutionaries and a Russian security outfit called Superior Solutions. (The initials S.S. aren’t remarked on, but are hard to miss.)
That framework is certainly a serious part of Lediga’s conception of the show, and it serves a similar purpose, in terms of setting a mood, as do the more anonymous conspiracies and injustices of American or French noir. But spelling it out makes “Queen Sono” sound a lot more serious than it is. Between the speeches about colonial legacies and about historical atonement, there are plenty of throwdowns and chases and shootouts, staged with competence if not much flair. They tend to show up arbitrarily, on what feels like someone’s idea of an action-show timetable. When it’s time for a fight, there’s a fight.
They’re also in the show’s freewheeling, lightly cynical humor the fictional leader of South Africa is described as “their idiot president” by an outsider and “the most bribable statesman on the planet” by one of his own citizens. And for the unfamiliar viewer, they’re also in the locations not just Johannesburg but also Zimbabwe, Kenya and, in a Bond-style opening, Zanzibar.
On the other hand, if you do have some experience with African TV the glossy, unapologetic melodramas of Nollywood or the viscerally brutal action thrillers of South Africa you may find “Queen Sono” unsatisfyingly in-between, a halfhearted and problematic attempt to dress up a soft Western-style drama. If so, you can take heart in another aspect of the Netflix international effect: Its next African original, the teenage mystery “Blood & Water,” is due later this spring.