At 9 PM last night the sumptuous soap Empire premiered to 9.8 million viewers, breathing life into Fox’s struggling lineup in the process. The hour-long drama finally capitalizes on the musical trend with music sorely missing from Empire’s predecessors – R&B and Hip Hop. Instead of making do with Mr. Schuester covering 20-year-old rap songs, now we finally have a show with maybe not groundbreaking music, but really good stuff for a network drama. The show itself is cheesy and the dialogue doesn’t even attempt subtext, but a compelling structure and flashy drama out the wazoo keep you engrossed – even when you know you shouldn’t be.
Interestingly this tale of a cutthroat music industry executive with warring family dynamics is partially based off a 1963 book entitled The Lion in Winter about the personal and professional difficulties of King Henry II of England. This complex political web forms somewhat of a backbone for this modern drama, but in the execution nothing ever feels all too complicated. There’s a story here about a patriarch giving up the business he worked hard to build to one of his sons, but the audience and the creators know we mostly care about the music and the catfights, which are both represented.
Who Better than Terrence Howard to be a Threatening Media Mogul?
Terrence Howard in a casting choice that should surprise no one plays a demanding, if not overtly threatening, CEO of a music empire called Empire Entertainment named Lucious Lyon. The opening scene paints a pretty clear picture of what to expect from Lucious when he pointedly reminds an underperforming singer to think about her brother who got shot a couple months ago in order to eek out every last bit of emotion for the song. It works, but yeesh, did he have to go there? We quickly get introduced to Lucious’ three sons Andre (Trai Byers) the CFO of Empire with a lot of professional qualifications but little ties to the music part of the music industry, Jamai (Jussie Smollett) the middle son who is a singer-songwriter and gay (much to Lucious’ chagrin) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) who is a somewhat stereotypical party boy rapper. Quite soon after we meet all the boys, Lucious makes abundantly clear that he is pitting his sons against each other in choosing the next head for Empire.
Just with that premise there is a enough going on for many future fruitful episodes, but around the time Lucious takes the company public his ex-wife Cookie Lyon played by an excellent Taraji B. Henson, gets released from jail after 17 years for “drug dealing” to boot. The seed money for Empire came from her drug money, something she tells Lucious she is not afraid to leverage in order to so see some of that new wealth.
A Rather Soapy Primetime Soap
With clunky cinematography and pretty bland dialogue this show almost surpasses primetime soap opera for daytime soap melodrama. Director Lee Daniel’s direction lacks the punch of his features Precious and Monster’s Ball or the subtlety of The Butler, but luckily the acting and music by superproducer Timbaland provide enough muscle to keep the show intriguing.
The machinations behind-the-scenes that keep the company afloat are established very early on, but the focus often shifts to the palatable over the complex. In the flashbacks to when Empire was just a dream shared between Cookie and Lucious, the show’s problems and strengths are made more evident. Instead of illustrating the gritty lives those two had to lead to get by and thus how far they have come, the shows instead opts for the easily understood. When Lucious can’t face visiting Cookie in prison in one of these flasbhacks, he sends in Andre who is the five-year-old equivalent of one of the puppies from the Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial. He has one tooth and his voice hard to understand, but boy is he cute. What the flashbacks and the show itself lack in substance, they make up for with catchy music, stellar acting across the board and a plot rife with amped up drama. Personally I think that’s not too bad for a FOX pilot.