I’ve been watching Empire since its premiere, but wanted to give it a closer look so I re-watched the first 4 episodes. This show is pretty much exactly what TV has been missing. It’s the perfect nighttime soap in a brand new package. It’s what Nashville wishes it was. It is decadent and dramatic and funny and clever and more than anything, it is deep in rich characters. I’m not going to pretend for a single moment that I know anything about the music. I know I like it, but I’m not the right person to judge whether it’s good or not. What I can judge are the characters and the plot and the performances and the clothes (OH THE CLOTHES!).
Here’s the basic plot breakdown: Lucious Lyon (played with ferocity by Terrence Howard) is the owner of Empire Enterprises, a hip hop music label. His ex-wife, Cookie, has just been released from prison after 17 years of a 30-year sentence for selling drugs (money that she then used to help Lucious start the label) and has come to claim her (rightful) place beside him as co-head of the company. Having just been diagnosed with ALS, Lucious is taking his company public and looking to his 3 sons – Andre (bi-polor eldest son with a business degree), Jamal (the gay R&B singer-songwriter who is also the black-sheep of the family) and Hakeem (young, fame-hungry up and coming rapper who is clearly Lucious’ favorite) – to choose his heir apparent. But instead of just handing the reigns over to all of them, he is pitting them against one another (with his obvious preference being Hakeem).
The best thing about this show is obviously Cookie. Not just Cookie the character (although she is a completely new creature on TV and totally divine) but Taraji P. Henson’s beautiful performance as Cookie. She is all fire and spunk. She is confidence and history and rough around the edges. She is a Matriarch with a capital M. I love her. Henson has captured all of the myriad of sides of Cookie and layered them into a fully embodied person. She doesn’t feel like a cartoon as some characters on nighttime soaps can feel (in fact, all of the characters feel very lived in and real to me). There is something so vulnerable in her anger and tenacity. And she has the best wardrobe on TV if you ask me (it’s all tight leopard print dresses, dramatic furs and leather and I love it):
I think the creators and writers have been very smart in the structure that they’ve set up so far for the show. There are stakes to everything the characters do. They have earned their wealth the hard way and the kids who grew up with it aren’t being let off the hook. In contrast to Nashville where it never feels like the characters are actually striving for anything, the characters of Empire have big goals with big successes or failures that seem to have repercussions (or set up repercussions down the line). When Lucious demands that his A&R team go after a rival producer, there is no reason given besides “he is my enemy”. There doesn’t need to be another reason. We eventually learn that the producer helped give Lucious his start in the industry but proceeded to take credit for the artistry behind the music and therefore owns a huge part of Lucious’ legacy. As Lucious deals with his impending health crisis (he was diagnosed with ALS in the pilot), his legacy and who it belongs to mean more than ever.
So far, the writers seem to be doling out story in slowly building chunks instead of the more fast-paced information dump of the Shonda Rhimes style dramas (How to Get Away With Murder, Scandal). I love the use of flashbacks to layer in how history has repeated itself or influenced the present-day (the last episode had a great connection between Andre instinctively protecting his father from the police in the past to him doing the same thing when the detective asks where Lucious was when Bunkie was shot). I like that the characters’ manipulations aren’t these big DUN-DUN-DUN moments. They are part of who they are. I just, pretty much like it all. Empire has been building on its ratings week-to-week so I know that FOX is going to stick with it for a while, I just hope it can sustain its momentum. It is a view into a new world that we haven’t really seen on TV and characters who haven’t really been given this kind of a voice and that’s awesome.