Fox’s midseason drama Empire, created by Lee Daniels (The Butler) is all about the money, power, and backstabbing. In Daniels’s words: “black Dynasty.” Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is a studio head with enough clout to cancel meetings with the President, but he has no control over his family. Hit the jump for why Lucious is looking for an heir, and why he’s coming up short.
Empire is a big deal. It’s yet another example of movie people (writers, actors, directors) coming to TV, and it’s also a dramatic story about a black family that’s running on primetime broadcast (Fox). But can it live up to its potential?
Having only seen the pilot, it’s hard to say. What is known is that while Daniels’s premiere episode (which he wrote and directed) is broad and jumpy, it also has a clear sense of what it’s looking to accomplish — with just a few hiccups.
Empire‘s setup is nothing new, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Lucious, who has been diagnosed with ALS (via the clunkiest dialogue possible), is looking for an heir to the record kingdom he has built from the ground-up, after a hardscrabble Philly upbringing. None of his three sons seem up to the task. The eldest, Andre (Trai Byers), is the most competent about business, but he doesn’t know music. Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) has a lot of potential as an artist, but he hasn’t been willing to take the next step, largely because he isn’t accepted by his father for being gay. The youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), is only interested in living the lifestyle of fame. “You’re wasting your life on bitches and booze, and you ain’t worked a damn day in your life,” Lucious says to him.
But Lucious also makes the choice to let his sons know he’s looking for one of them to rise up and prove they can take over from him, setting off a competition of sorts (“is this King Lear now?” Jamal rightfully asks). While the boys, particularly Jamal and Hakeem, have no desire to split up their family over this in-fighting, a wild card comes into the mix: their mother, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), a hurricane-force woman.
Cookie emerges in Empire from prison, draped in a fur coat, saying to the sky “I’m coming for what’s mine.” Empire is full of these kinds of campy moments, but it doesn’t make the show less entertaining. In fact, Cookie is what gives Empire life. She immediately starts causing trouble, but it’s hard not to love the way she talks about weaves as “women walking around, scalps smelling like a goat’s ass,” and beats Hakeem with a broom when (after she tries to reconnect with him) he says, “you want a medal, bitch?”
Empire is full of foul language, bad behavior, and an overuse of the word “bitch” (Jesse Pinkman would approve), but there’s no denying that within its familiar family drama setup is a show that seems really entertaining (like How to Get Away with Murder, the crazy will be strong with this one). Sometimes, that’s all viewers are asking for — and there’s no shame in that.
On the other hand, sometimes Empire teeters too far in the name of shock value. Lucious makes a decision late in the episode that plays out in an almost comically ridiculous way. It’s clear that Daniels’s desire was to show that Lucious hadn’t left behind his hard past, which is in contrast to Cookie, who just spent 17 years in prison for drug dealing, and is ready to move on with her life. Through flashbacks (which don’t always work), we get glimpses of the Lyon family before the fame and fortune, setting up the fact that no amount of power can erase the past.
It’s also worth mentioning that, like ABC’s music-centric series Nashville, Empire can boast its own music producer for the show; in this case, Timbaland. The songs on Empire (again, likeNashville) were some of the highlights of the hour, even if they were just snippets. They are what make the series really stand out.
Ultimately, Empire has a strong cast and a pretty clear sense of itself, and pilot episodes are (of course) always hard to judge the rest of the series on. Sometimes Daniels’s dialogue captures its cadences perfectly, and other times, it’s hokey and stilted. Empire, like the Lyon family, could end up being a mess. But regardless, it’s going to be whatever it is with style.
Empire premieres Wednesday, January 7th at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.