Dramas about outright wealthy Black people are a rarity on television. So, in that respect, “The Kings of Napa” is a refreshing edition of what some term “TV’s Black Renaissance.” And, for that novelty alone, many will tune in. Whether they will stay locked in is another question.
“Claws” showrunner Janine Sherman Barrois’ upgrade from Mantee County Florida to California wine country is not without its hiccups. When a crisis involving family patriarch and House of Kings winery founder Reginald King (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) forces his daughter August King (Ebonée Noel) to the helm of the family-owned company, her older brother, Dana (Rance Nix), the company’s CFO, is not pleased by being overlooked. That amplifies an ongoing sibling rivalry but also feeds into the classic business clash between creative leadership and fiscal responsibility, with the trick being how to do both. Dana’s status as a little person only adds to the tension.
Taking over the business in face of personal and financial crises, August must also face down other challenges as her father’s many skeletons continue to roll out the closet. The revelations further strain the already fraught relationship between his wife, Vanessa (Karen LeBlanc), and Vanessa’s sister Melanie Pierce (Devika Parikh), leaving Melanie’s daughter, Bridgette (Yaani King Mondschein), in the middle to suffer the fallout. As for August’s younger sibling Christian (Ashlee Brian), events force him to reshift his focus from his playboy lifestyle filled with designer wares, fast cars and women to learn and contribute to the business that has afforded him these luxuries in the first place.
It’s a stew that becomes a bit overcooked at times primarily due to over-the-top storylines. Often the show defaults to plot to drive the narrative instead of leaning into and unpacking the many relatable layers that apply to all families. It’s those nuances that carry HBO’s “Succession,” which continues to rack up awards for presenting upper-class family dysfunction. “Kings of Napa” also lacks a single all-powerful entity in the vein of Logan Roy.
By contrast, Reginald King is set up as the nice guy, a doctor to boot, who made out well with no hint of the bold ruthlessness that propels other TV patriarchs (compare Damian Lewis’ Bobby “Axe” Axelrod in “Billions,” who achieves the-wealthy-villain-you-can’t-help-rooting-on status that proves elusive here). There is no hint of the delicious deviousness Diahann Carroll brought to the nighttime soapy classic “Dynasty” or even the haughty grace Lynn Whitfield embodied as Lady Mae in OWN’s successful Black church-centric drama “Greenleaf.”
Unlike “Our Kind of People,” Fox’s upper-class Black drama set on fabled Martha’s Vineyard, there’s also no challenge from a “have not” to the “haves,” which was the center of OWN’s longtime ratings star from Tyler Perry. In this ecosystem, the Kings and everyone around them are financially stable. But that, in and of itself, is no saving grace. Once viewers are acclimated to the family’s beautiful home and trappings of wealth, what is there?
One of the hooks of “Our Kind of People” — which is, by no means, a critical darling — is its investment in the frequently untapped Black cultural gems of Black Greek life, debutante balls and the power of hair empires, especially the present-day movement celebrating the Black natural hair phenomenon. Although the Kings are all Black, there is no cultural specificity to their portrayal. It’s a stark contrast to ABC’s intriguing Latinx drama “Promised Land,” which also revolves around a family-owned wine business. Still, Black wine efforts are a real draw, with Mary J. Blige, Dwyane Wade and Snoop Dogg among the many Black stars with their own labels.
Ebonée Noel, whom some may recognize as Special Agent Kristen Chazal from the CBS hit “FBI,” is a captivating lead, transforming August into a character you generally want to see win, even if winning is what she’s done most of her life. She is strong and capable and even has potential love woes in a reignited romance with a man who chose to marry “a housewife” over an ambitious, career-driven woman like herself. However, that budding love story — coupled with a menacing extortion plot, her mother’s unintentional sabotage and the familiarity of sibling rivalry — might not be enough bait to hook viewers for the long haul.
But the power of representation and looking well can never be discounted with a Black drama. To that end, “The Kings of Napa” has plenty to spare. And, to be fair, the four episodes provided to critics may not be enough to judge the show’s potential. Prime positioning on the Oprah Winfrey Network is also an undeniable boon, a secret weapon even. So the series could ripen with the right blend of flash and intrigue to satisfy OWN viewers’ thirst.
“The Kings of Napa” premieres on OWN on January 11.