Fox’s breakout hit show, Empire, is an expensively entertaining blend of glamour and a stylized version of a certain black urban subculture. The recording industry’s hip hop genre is the Philadelphia-based series’ setting. The plot entails a gangster type, his determined ex-wife and three sons. The theme is no deeper than any daytime soap opera. Empire‘s unique mixture of Dynasty-scale production with a Glee-type musical cycle distinguishes the Fox drama.
Neither as broad and campy as ABC’s 1981-1989 series Dynasty—think of Empire as a black, hip hop soap with shorter, faster scenes and story arcs—nor as implausible and preposterous as ABC’s current hit Scandal, the first season of producer Lee Daniels’ Empire sticks with a solid story premise. Its leading male character is a hoodlum named Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, of Hustle & Flow, St. Vincent and Iron Man). With a nefarious and mysterious criminal background, Lyon has to some extent built a legitimate business, the Lyon empire with its popular music and related products, including a nightclub named Leviticus. Empire—that’s the company’s name—is run by Lyon and his college-bred first-born son, Andre (Trai Byers, Selma). Two other sons, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) are groomed as the label’s recording artists.
Lyon’s three sons compete during the first season’s central conflict to be the heir apparent because Pop has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This soap opera cliche is well played, however, by Howard, an excellent actor who is somewhat constrained by this Jekyll and Hyde type role. From episode to episode, Lucious Lyon alternates between murderous, philandering thug and moneymaking visionary. Realistic dialogue keeps Empire grounded while stunning costume and set design dazzle and this balance distracts from the occasionally overwrought Scandal-like plots and forestalls total lunacy like later seasons of Dallas and Dynasty. Lyon’s sons take after their pappy, too, especially Andre, known as Dre, who is both the cliched dastardly, greedy and maniacal businessman and the cliched stud. The middle son, the most talented artist on Empire’s roster, is a closeted homosexual. The youngest is an impudent brat with a heart of gold and mommy issues (Naomi Campbell).
Speaking of maternity, the ex-wife—like Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington Colby on Dynasty—steals and powers the company, the family empire and the show. Her character’s name is Cookie Lyon and she’s an ex-con played by Taraji P. Henson (Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) who raises everyone’s stakes and comes back to Empire to get a piece of what she knows she seeded and arguably ought to at least co-own. Cookie, like the title character on BET’s Being Mary Jane, combines sass, ghetto and soul and Henson constantly keeps each plot contrivance from ruining all the credibility, plausibility and fun. She brings a knowing, winking playfulness spun with seriousness, so when she sticks up for her gay son, gets in her ex-husband’s face about business or sets her sights on a company security man (Derek Luke, Sparkle), it’s involving. Viewers may tune in for the melodrama and the music—by Timbaland and mostly good, though often forgettable and never inspiring—but they’re sticking around for some of what Cookie’s cooking up as she’s almost always got the best lines, though Smollett as a Lyon with integrity comes close, especially in scenes with Terrence Howard. A supporting cast of players is also good and it’s not hard to see why this briskly paced, smart, hip, musical show’s a smash for Fox. Rupert Murdoch ought to thank Henson as Cookie first for that.
Howard’s Lyon as the dying kingpin holds his own and defines the first season’s themes of crime, family and music. When the family comes together toward the end and subplot gaps become apparent, Empire‘s tip toward style over substance starts to show and grind. Plot points shift too quickly—at times, Lucious Lyon is almost sociopathic—which undermines the show’s foundation. Characterizations are realistically differentiated, with some issues such as blacks’ cultural collectivism and conservatism dramatized to fine effect, and Henson’s Cookie usually freshens up the entertainment with some display of humor or reformed convict/absent mother wisdom. But this character also has someone executed for sending a rose, so it’s best to enter Empire with an appropriately arched attitude.