At 9 PM Wednesday night the sumptuous soap Empire premiered to 9.9 million viewers, and 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 on Glee, now we finally have a show with maybe not groundbreaking music, but really good stuff for a network drama. The story 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 cat fights, which are both represented.
Terrence Howard (in a casting choice that should surprise no one) plays Lucious Lyon, a demanding, if not overtly threatening CEO of a music empire called Empire Entertainment. 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 all the emotion for the song. It works, but yeeesh, 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 industry, Jamal (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. Hakeem and Jamal pull off what might be my favorite song of the hour for its slick beat and decent lyrics, while power-hungry Andre commiserates with his wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday). Soon after we meet all the boys, Lucious makes it abundantly clear that he is pitting his sons against each other in choosing the next head of Empire.
Just with that premise, there is enough going on for many future, fruitful episodes. But around the time Lucious takes the company public, his ex-wife Cookie, played by an excellent Taraji B. Henson, gets released from jail after 17 years for drug dealing. The seed money for Empire came from that drug money, something she tells Lucious she is not afraid to leverage in order to see some of that company wealth. With clunky cinematography and pretty bland dialogue, this show almost surpasses primetime dramas for daytime soap opera 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 super-producer 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 what is palatable over what might be more 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 how those two were living in a poor area of Philly selling drugs of some sort, the shows 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 is 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.