Not content to let ABC hog all of the music business drama on Nashville, Fox has put its hat in the ring with its hip-hop soap opera, Empire. From the minds of The Butler’s Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, Empire is like a modern twist on Shakespearian drama, or like that famous picture of Biggie Smalls with the crown adorned on his head, once again trying to show that heavy is the head that wears the crown, or like Big said, mo’ money, mo’ problems.
And boy, are there problems. Hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon, head of Empire Entertainment, is in the midst of trying to take his company public when he’s diagnosed with ALS. Terrance Howard plays Lucius like a cross between Jay-Z and King Lear, who gets a nice little namedrop. Just like Lear, Lucious must decide between his three children, the stuffed shirt, business minded Andre (Trai Byers), the talented and homosexual Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and hard-partying, favorite son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray aka Philly MC Yazz The Greatest). To make matters worse, Lucious’ incarcerated ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) has been released from jail and is looking for her piece of the business that she helped create.
If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. In this pilot, Empire stretches out what could have taken one season alone to set up and crams it into 48 minutes. After establishing that he’s probably the most qualified yet overlooked candidate, Andre and his wife create a plan to turn his two brothers against each other, casually mentioning that it’ll probably end with them dead. Andre’s plan is to get Cookie to surrender her claim to Empire Entertainment in return for control over Jamal’s career, who has a complicated relationship with his homophobic father. With Jamal’s career butting up against Hakeem’s and his father’s health ailing, Andre hopes to seize the throne.
Daniels and Lee handle this entire plot. despite a wooden performance from Howard, mostly with the help of grounded, modern skewing dialogue and an energetic performance from Henson, who livens up every scene she appears in. She’s bringing the camp and ferocity just as hard and successful as Jada Pinkett Smith is on Gotham. Though Howard’s melodrama is laid on most thick, his chemistry with Henson feels genuine; the audience can easily feel the history between the two characters in their exchanges.
The musical aspect of the show is sort of hit and miss. Timbaland supplies a cool, diverse, bombastic soundtrack, but a lot of the time the tunes are cut off right when they’re getting good, or they are presented artificially like a scene in a bad musical, like the two musical collaboration scenes between Jamal and Hakeem. However, Jamal’s show-stopping number shines and should serve as a lesson to shows like American Horror Story: Freak Show on how to incorporate musical numbers that convey the emotions of the characters.
The show’s best moments are the revealing and ground laying flashbacks, but for some reason even the present day scenes are shot in a weird sepia sundrenched tone. Anyway, at this point and time, Empire is an ambitious, soapy show with a lot of story threads, my biggest fear is if the show is stretching out this much in its first hour, that it’s bound to head off the rails into goofiness too soon. Hopefully subsequent episodes pull back on the reins before things get too over-the-top.