Roush Review: Going Personal, and Diverse, with ‘Atlanta’, ‘Better Things’, ‘Queen Sugar’

Matthias Clamer/FX

I had to laugh earlier this summer when Billy Eichner, of Hulu’s outrageous Difficult People, griped, “When did comedies become half-hour dramas?” He has a point, up to a point. Many comedies, especially on cable and streaming, have gone darker—sometimes to the point of dreariness (HBO’s Togetherness, Showtime’s Happyish)—eschewing jokiness to get at more sobering truths.

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Two terrific new FX dramadies (for lack of a better word) premiering this week, Atlanta and Better Things, walk that fine line with unusual finesse, peppering their very personal visions with skewed, offbeat humor that only occasionally qualifies as laugh-out-loud.

In particular, Donald Glover’s impressive, immersive Atlanta is steeped in an urban hard-knocks authenticity so detailed and so real you’re not always quite sure you’ve heard a punch line, or if it’s even appropriate to smile. Actor/musician/creator Glover (Community) disarmingly stars as sheepishly down-on-his-luck Earn, who can barely afford to buy a fast-food kids’ lunch, let alone support his girlfriend and daughter on the paltry commissions he collects as a credit-card recruiter at the airport. Little wonder he sees his rapper cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi” (Brian Tyree Henry) as his meal ticket to fortune.

“Just try not to die,” he begs Alfred, whose first rush of fame is, ironically, less about his music than fallout from a random shooting incident that makes the local news. One typically atypical episode juxtaposes a nightmarish drug deal involving Alfred (and scene-stealing stoner sidekick Darius, wonderfully played by Lakeith Stanfield) with Earn’s more sitcom-like ordeal of a dinner date he may not be able to pay for.

“I’m not every dude,” Earn insists to a local radio connection he’s trying to impress. “You kind of are,” he’s told, and that’s the beauty of Atlanta, never letting things get larger than life even when life takes weird, crazy turns.

better things, highlights

better things, highlights

Pamela Adlon’s Better Things is a more traditionally funnier show, a distaff Louie (co-produced and often co-written by Louis C.K.), likewise tinged with a wry melancholy as Adlon plays an exhausted single mom of three demanding daughters—“They’re my love life,” she quips—struggling for work as an overripe actor in Hollywood.

Adlon’s sardonic sensibility, equal parts Janeane Garofalo and Maura Tierney, is perfectly suited to a show that preaches female empowerment while delivering a barbed reality check. “We all bleed and we all suffer,” she tells her middle daughter’s “Women and Girls” seminar, asking who in the audience has had their period: “We’re tough and we can take it.” Adlon certainly can, pointedly reminding us how far TV’s oh-so-human comedies have come.

Rutina Wesley in Queen Sugar

Rutina Wesley in Queen Sugar

QUEEN OF THE SOUTH: All hail OWN’s Queen Sugar for what it represents: A languorous, visually sensual and emotionally resonant African-American family saga from acclaimed filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma). She assembles an all-female team of directors to bring to life an otherwise stubbornly familiar (so far) story of prodigal, estranged siblings coming together to save the family sugarcane business on 800 acres of prime Louisiana farmland.

Though the glacial pace is more akin to molasses, and the plotting offers few surprises in the first three episodes, there’s a powerful contrast between these open, untended fields and the glittery L.A. skyline visible from the swank home of Charley (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), who manages the career of her pro-basketball star husband until scandal and her father’s illness propel her back to the South.

There, she reunites with sister Nova (True Blood’s dynamic Rutina Wesley), a prideful reporter with mystical leanings, and brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), an ex-con who alone sees the value in maintaining the family’s legacy. Often stealing the show from all of them is the formidable Tina Lifford as Oprah surrogate Aunt Violet, keeping them all in line. Let’s hope as they get down to business, Queen Sugar lives up to its promise to grow roots dramatic enough to keep us hooked.

Atlanta premieres Tuesday, September 6, 10/9c, on FX.

Better Things premieres Thursday, September 8, 10/9c, on FX.

Queen Sugar premieres Tuesday and Wednesday, September 6 and 7, 10/9c, on OWN.