Friday, January 9, 2015

Pilot Review: Empire

Empire (Wednesdays at 9:00 on Fox)

This has been an incredible year for diversity on the broadcast nets. The biggest show on network television has a black female lead (Scandal), and the biggest new show of the year does as well (How to Get Away with Murder). The biggest new comedy of the year is about an all-black family (Black-ish), and now you have Empire, with its entirely African American or Latino cast, sweeping in to tie How to Get Away... for the biggest premiere of the season. And the best part about all of this? Each of these shows is actually good.

Lucious Lyon (Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard) is dying, but that doesn't mean he's slowing down. Still at the top of the hip-hop game after decades as a successful recording artist and businessman, Lucious is preparing to take his company, Empire Entertainment, public. At the same time, Lucious is looking to his three sons to possibly take over as CEO when he's gone. Hakeem (rapper Bryshere "Yazz the Greatest" Gray) is the youngest, a fame-obsessed spoiled brat with a knack for lyrics. Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is a musical prodigy, but he's also the black sheep of the family after admitting to his father that he's gay and renouncing the corporate side of the music industry. And Andre (Trai Byers, 90210) is the eldest, the only Lyon without any musical aspirations, but with a head for business and the Wharton degree to prove it (and maybe a bit of an instability problem). But the already-complicated family dynamic is further thrown for a loop when Lucious' ex-wife Cookie (Academy Award nominee Taraji P. Henson, late of Person of Interest) is released from prison, where she served seventeen years on charges of dealing drugs... the very drugs that financed Empire in the first place. Now Cookie is back to take back what's hers: the company, the money and the family she was denied.

It's all very Dynasty-esque, with a lot of references to The Lion in Winter (notice the last name?) as well. Lucious is the King of his Empire, Cookie his imprisoned Queen, and his three sons the princes competing, by any means necessary, for the crown. It's very Shakespearean (one of the script's best lines even references this: "So, what, we King Lear now?" Jamal asks), both in plot and in scope. There's an epic feel to Empire that makes it read like an opera, and the addition of original music by multiple Grammy winner Timbaland, who most recently produced Beyonce's "Drunk in Love," adds to that scope. There are moments when Empire feels larger than life, thanks in large part to a regal, cocky performance by Howard. And then there's Taraji P. Henson, who burns up the screen whenever she gets the chance. If Howard is more in line with The Lion in Winter side of things, Henson is much more Dynasty. Her Cookie is a firecracker, entering the picture in a slinky cheetah-print tube dress and immediately ingratiating herself into Jamal's life with cooed words about how she's the only one who appreciates and understands him, no matter what. (It should be noted that the handling of Jamal's sexuality is both honest and heartbreaking, particularly in a flashback to Jamal wearing his mother's heels around the house.) Such pleasantries are not reserved for Hakeem, who gets a nice beating from his mother with a broom handle. Henson's is a stormy, exciting, over-the-top performance, a scene-stealer if there ever was one. Whenever she's on screen, Empire is undeniably soapy.

The rest of the cast fares relatively well. Newcomer Gray is appropriately obnoxious, Smollett is reserved and affecting, and Byers is a bit above-it-all. Then again, it's easy to be good when the script you're working with, courtesy of Danny Strong (Game Change) and Lee Daniels (Precious), is so strong. Empire is modern but still familiar; the family struggle and backstabbing is nothing new, but shifting it onto an African American family in the music business makes it feel fresh and current. There are moments that are cheesy, such as the impromptu jam session between Jamal and Hakeem that serves as a disingenuous introduction to their characters, but there are many more that feel real and honest, such as Jamal's nightclub performance of "Good Enough," a song about craving his father's love, effectively intercut with scenes of abuse at his father's hands as a child. It's a precarious balance to strike, and one that could easily tip more often into the cheesy, Smash-like side of things in future episodes. But if the writing remains strong, and if the music leans more toward the confessional quality of "Good Enough," Empire may be able to buck the trend of musical television shows starting strong and quickly falling flat. There are some side stories that also have me worried, such as a late-episode reveal that Lucius didn't completely leave behind his thuggish roots as a drug dealer and murderer (this scene, and others to a lesser extent, remind me too much of Starz's boring, cliche-ridden Power) and the inevitable subplot of Cookie feeding information to the authorities about Lucius's business practices (how else did she get an early release?). But still, Empire boasts some strong performances, some good music, and the timely, realistic handling of homophobia in the black community. The pilot is mostly a success, so hopefully the rest of the series can stay at that level.

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