EMPIRE: A New Legacy Begins
When I saw the trailer for Empire, I knew it was going to be something special. And as the premiere got closer and closer, I grew more and more excited. For the most part, it was everything I wanted it to be. And it was also more.
Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is a hip hop star turned media mogul who is tough, exacting, and driven. He has discovered that he has a terminal illness and three years or less to live. So he knows that he needs to groom one of his three sons to lead his empire, Empire Records (yes, the title is a double entendre). If this makes you think of King Lear, the writers are aware and even comment on it in the scene where he discusses this with his three sons: Andre (Trai Byers), Lucious’ right hand man in the company and a businessman through and through; Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a gay R&B singer who loves music more than the game; and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), a rising rap star who cares more about women and liquor than working on his craft.
Added into the fray is Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P Henson), who has just been released from prison after seventeen years. Since it was her money that started the company, she wants a take, and then some.
While the entire cast is solid, Henson really stands out, owning every scene, putting on different faces for each of her sons as well as her ex-husband, manipulating them all to her own ends. After beating Hakeem for his lack of respect, and showing Jamal that she supports his lifestyle when his father doesn’t, she schemes with Andre to take the other two brothers down so that he can rise to run the company, ensuring that she gets control of Jamal’s career.
These are just a few of the many subplots that are set up in the first episode. Hakeem gets Jamal to help him with a track that pleases Lucious, but Lucious’ prejudice against Jamal’s homosexuality sends Jamal running directly into Cookie’s waiting arms. Lucious’ bodyguard, Bunkie (Antoine McKay) needs money and threatens to burn Lucious’ world down by revealing that Lucious killed four drug dealers when he and Cookie were dealers back in the day. Lucious retaliates by shooting Bunkie in the head, setting up a murder investigation that will keep Lucious on his toes. In the meantime, Cookie has signed away her rights to reveal that she provided the seed money for the company, but she still knows all of the skeletons in Lucious’ closet, so their war is not over yet.
A lot to set up in one episode, but FOX is airing the show with limited commercial interruption, so there is time for all of the plot, plus the extremely excellent music that appears throughout the show. Musical shows like Glee, Smash and Galavant are becoming more and more prevalent, and “shows with music”, like Nashville, are on the rise as well. Empire is an example of that latter category, and the music is perfection. Legendary producer Timbaland is in charge of the music, and each song fits the characters who sing them, both in terms of the artists styles as well as being consistent with what’s happening in the show. The show opens with an artist singing a gorgeous ballad, “What is Love”, as we see Lucious undergoing tests for his illness. Hakeem raps “Right There”, showing his love for messing around. But the song that really got me was Jamal’s “Good Enough”, a heart wrenching R&B song that was clearly about wanting his father’s approval, but not getting it. It was poignant, passionate, heartbreaking, and I’ll be listening to it on repeat for weeks.
The show was conceived by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, whose reputations precede them, and produced by Brian Grazer. This creative team, combined with Timbaland’s music, Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard leading a strong cast that includes Gabourey Sidibe and Cuba Gooding Jr as special guest stars, and a dramatic storyline that will likely be ridiculous but entertaining means that FOX has a bona fide hit on its hands.