Tweetable Takeaway: Empire combines high drama with deeply nuanced characters and gets off to a compelling start.
Airtime: Wednesday at 9ET on Fox
By: Dana Leigh Brand, Contributor
I expected EMPIRE to be sensationalist trash. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the trailers (I’m not a fan of trailers), or maybe it was how promoted it was. Instead, it’s a Shakespearian high drama that eloquently touches on repression, domestic violence, daddy issues, and LGBTQ discrimination without being heavy handed or overly soapy about it.
Full disclaimer: I am a Southern white girl. One half of my family encompasses every redneck stereotype that’s ever been concocted. The other is faux-aristocratic Virginians. As the most innocuous example of bigotry I can think of: when I was a kid, my brother and I weren’t allowed to watch Star Trek: Deep Space Nine because Sisko was a black man in a position of power. My high school was 85% black and none of my (black) friends were allowed to come over. I mention it because I feel like that puts me in a weird liminal space with respect to a story so entrenched in hip-hop culture. I am keenly aware of it but was never allowed to partake. I am intimately acquainted with racism but have never been on the receiving end. I was intrigued by Empire, but what gave me that final push to watch it was that I knew my parents would be livid about it. I am twenty-six. I’ve been out of their house for a while now. I remain that petty and vindictive about their conservative bullshit.
Empire more than rewarded me for my streak of juvenile rebellion.
The family drama between Lucious, Cookie, and their three sons is the perfect balance between realistic and soapy. The realistic comes from all the hurt feelings and jostling for attention (the song “Good Enough” pretty much sums it up.) The soapy comes from the grand scale of their drama. Howard and Henson have chemistry that plays well on both sides of the love/hate dynamic they’ve got going on. I love the role reversal of the gender stereotypes with Cookie doing seventeen years in jail for dealing drugs. But I also love Cookie as the star-maker with the real ear. Cookie is, far and away, my favorite part already. She’s a force to be reckoned with and she gets what she wants. Lucious is a superstar who built Empire Records from the ground up. I love Lucious’ conflict between his “legit” side as recording magnate and his shady past which—even in just one episode—seems to always loom over him like a threat. In this episode, he’s just been diagnosed with ALS and sets up our major conflict by insisting his three sons compete to be the next head of the company.
The three sons are concrete, defined, and beautifully flawed. Andre doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, but he’s a business genius. Jamal is musically gifted but gay, which is a huge strike against him with his father. Hakeem is a talented rapper with star qualities but he’s also a frivolous playboy. Their characters are so well realized right here at the beginning that the machinations of the three brothers ring deeply true. All three have beef with their father, and all three are out to prove themselves in different ways. The irony, of course, is that together they’d be an unstoppable force. We see that in Jamal and Hakeem’s collaborations, and in Andre already being the one who runs the majority of Empire’s business side.
The LGBT issues at the core of the show are phenomenally nuanced. I neither feel like I’m getting slammed in the face with positivity or with condemnation. Jamal’s relationship with his boyfriend Michael is presented as a simple fact of his person, while Lucious’ homophobia and machismo are realistic and tragic. It all feels very natural and not trumped up for extra drama or conflict and that unforced quality is what lets the story be so powerful.
The one time I pursed my lips in annoyance was the weirdly out-of-place lines about music artists being unable to make money because of the evil internet. It smacked hard of corporate propaganda without addressing the actual changes to the music industry, but I won’t get into that. It’s easy enough to ignore since it’s not the main point of anything in the episode.
Some of my favorite things:
- Becky’s “‘Scuse you! I’m back here!” at the beginning when Lucious is ignoring her. Oh, high school flashbacks.
- “What is this, we King Lear now?” Yes. That is exactly what you are.
- Cookie’s crazy hooker outfit when she gets out of jail. The best part is Jamal’s “What are you wearing?”
- All the music is hip-hop, and it’s used spectacularly in place of an instrumental score. The music producer is Timbaland, so it’s in good hands.
- The entire scene where Cookie saunters into the board room in full power mode is flawless.
- All the double meaning every time they say “empire” in a sentence.
- All of the scenes between Cookie and Jamal are emotionally raw to the point where I’m on the verge of tears, and tears are hard to get from me.
- They can’t like, cuss or have crazy sex or anything to represent hip-hop culture because it’s a network show. The writers can’t rely on sensationalism and have to be more creative. Love it.
- “You know I was never into wearing all damn weaves. Girls walking around with their scalp smelling like goat ass.” Omg.
All in all, I’m blown away by this episode and look forward to the rest of the series. That’s right, Dana the Sci-Fi Queen is way into a show without any sort of quirky angle to it. Machiavellian machinations, grand plots, and high drama ahoy!
*I would like to apologize for the lateness of this review. It took me all day to realize no one was reviewing the series for The Tracking Board and that was such a crying shame that I volunteered.