Is Empire the “Black Dynasty”?
We’re going to be spoiled for good TV in 2015 if this keeps up, as the new year’s quality run continues with the premiere of Fox’s Empire. I was healthily skeptical going into this one, what with Fox’s incessant promos with the – if we’re being honest – incredibly annoying “No Apologies” song blaring seemingly every five seconds on the network during the month of December. In addition, when you add to it the fact that noted eccentric Terrence Howard was top-lining it and that Fox’s last musical skewing hour-long was the execrable Glee, Empire seemed to have disaster written all over it.
Perhaps that’s why Empire arriving as all of the best of that long-forgotten genre – the prime-time soap opera – came as such a surprise, to the point that some are saying that creator Lee Daniels is making “the black Dynasty.” The series follows hip-hop legend/entrepreneur Lucious Lyon as played by Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow), who receives a dire medical diagnosis within the series’ first hour that necessitates him creating a succession plan for his label/conglomerate, Empire Enterprises. His candidates are his three sons: Wharton-educated Andre (Trai Byers), spotlight-shunning Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and young and entitled Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), with Empire promising to pit each brother against one another for the future of the company. Complicating matters is the reappearance of Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (an arguably never better Taraji P. Henson), who shows back up in his life directly out of prison demanding restitution for taking the fall for Lucious on a drug deal gone bad, one that actually served as the funding for Lucious’s enterprise. With the former drug-slinging aspect, it seems clear that Jay Z served as at least a modicum of inspiration for the Lucious character, just as it’s possible that there’s a little bit of Frank Ocean present in Jamal.
Though Empire sounds very soap-ish (and it is), it also deals with social issues like homophobia in the hip-hop world (Jamal is gay and Lucious is embarrassed by him) and interracial marriage (Andre’s white wife is derided by Cookie). In some ways, it’s almost like Daniels crafted the soap aspect to draw the masses in order to actually examine more anthropological issues. When it comes to the performances, Henson is the standout as the brash and memorable Cookie, and it’s easy to see why she ditched procedural pabulum like CBS’s Person of Interest for a showier and frankly more fun role like this. Howard is largely… fine, while Smollett also stands out along with Henson as the introspective Jamal. The characterizations are great, because no one (save maybe Jamal) is a total white hat or black hat. They’re all painted realistically in shades of gray.
Ultimately, it seems that Empire’s going to be a delicate balance of the crowd-pleasing cheese for which soaps are famous and the larger social themes that Daniels wants to explore, so maybe calling it the “black Dynasty” is a little reductive. It’s entirely possible that a show that burns as hot and as fast as this does could lose its fire quickly, but for now, it looks to promise a great deal of thoughtful fun.
Episode 1.01 Grade: B+
*Lucious is originally from Philadelphia. Philly Represent.
*Could have really done without the speechifying about “music on the Internet.”
*To really drive the point home about Lucious’s bigotry when it comes to his son, he’s a “sexuality is a choice” kind of guy.
*It looks like there are going to be flashbacks interspersed regularly to fill viewers in on where the characters came from. For instance, we see one of Jamal dressed up in women’s clothes as a kid and then catching a beating from Lucious, who also stuffs him in a trash can to Cookie’s disgust.
*There’s a twist at the end of the episode that sees Lucious sharing something in common with The Shield’s Vic Mackey, as least where pilots are concerned.
*Cookie Quote of the Night: “You know I was never into wearing those weaves, girls walking around smellin’ like goat ass.”