The late-night soap game is getting crowded. With Revenge, Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Nashville, and others all scratching the itch for melodramatic, emotional rollercoasters, I thought it’d be hard for Fox to get their foot in the door. I definitely didn’t expect it to come in the form of Empire.
Not because I didn’t expect the talent was there; Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have earned their stripes as storytellers, the two leads are Academy Award-nominated actors, and the soundtrack is provided by one of hot hip-hop’s consistently hot producers of the last 20 years. Honestly, my fears rested on a larger audience embracing hip-hop culture. We all know hip-hop and pop have become synonymous on radio stations, with the genre becoming the defining soundtrack to youth culture, but those aren’t the people at home on a Wednesday night watching television. Lucious actually faces that conservative, network watching demographic in this very episode when he appears on Fox News-esque show after a rapper on his label inspires a mall shooting, putting his IPO launch in jeopardy. I didn’t know whether Empire, just like Lucious does in this episode, could convince an older demo to see hip-hop’s validity.
Thankfully, Empire excels at the sort of over-the-top performances, zany plot lines, and delicious deceit that these late night soaps thrive on, making it as good of a guilty pleasure as anything Shonda Rhimes is churning out. The music, especially in this episode, avoids being intrusive or artificial and fits snuggly into the narrative. Only two episodes in and we’re already hiding murders, mental health disorders, and sexuality while siblings fight, old flames bicker, new flames spark, and Obama uses some unnecessary language in an unheard phone call. It’s ridiculous and ridiculously fun, like Kanye West screaming to hurry up with his damn croissant!
No one is more fun or seems to be having more fun than Taraji P. Henson who is incendiary as ex-wife Cookie. Cookie makes the Real Housewives clan seem well adjusted and behaved, and Henson brings a charisma to it all that’s infectious. Every time she bursts into the Empire Entertainment boardroom like a firecracker she captures your attention and refuses to let it go. If your eyes do manage to wander, she’ll throw a shoe at you. In the episode, which seems to bring in many more characters to Empire’s world, the writers have the good sense to give Cookie an assistant, a whipping post she can hoot and holler at all she wants, adding a great amount of levity to the Shakespearian drama at the root of all of this.
Andre already seems to be in Macbeth waters. Going mad, being bossed around by his power hungry wife. The revelation that Andre is bipolar and becomes manic, talking about himself in the third person, is the exact kind of thing I’d expect from this show, and it’s only my second viewing. Regardless, I excepted the somewhat silly depiction of mental health easily, which I guess can be a compliment to the tone Empire has already established.
The other siblings are pitted against each other when Lucious gives Hakeem his own concert to shine, while Cookie tries to steal his thunder by having Jamal come out the next day at a press conference. Jamal skips his revealing moment and Hakeem ends up grabbing headlines after some lewd behavior at an upscale restaurant which culminates in him calling Obama a “sellout.” No press is bad press, so Hakeem’s concert becomes a big deal, and little brother asks Jamal to preform alongside of him, to the chagrin of his father. These two may be at each other’s throats at some point, but not yet. Who knows what will be the event that will drive them apart, but I’m glad that the show is taking its time with this unraveling.
The show did a better job at slowing things down all around. Bunkie’s body is found and identified, and Lucious cries some convincing tears in front of the family, showing just how manipulative he’s willing to be to preserve his legacy. It’s the first moment where Terrance Howard has really grabbed me. He gets me again during the before-mentioned TV interview. Also, at the very end of the episode, Cookie is grabbed by an agent asking her to testify, which causes much duress for Cookie. Does it add another layer to this already deliciously decadent cake? Sure, but at this point, I’m biting.