Empire State of Mind

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After weeks of no TV and spotty wifi, I landed at an airbnb with decent enough internet to catch up on some new shows. Fox’s Empire has been the talk of trade magazines, blogs and tv shows and I’ve been dying to catch it. Fortunately, it’s streaming right now on HuluPlus, so I binge-watched the first four episodes. A lot of press is comparing Empire to Dynasty and the Godfather movies, two of my all time faves, so I knew I’d enjoy it. I just didn’t expect to enjoy it this much.

First off, this show is juicy! It has enough plot for three different shows and a cast that’s more than up to the challenge. Empire is the story of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), an R&B mogul who is intent on taking his 20 year old label public. Helping him with the day to day business is his eldest son Andre (Trai Byers) in legal, and second wife Anika, who’s the head of A&R. Luscious has two other sons, rap-star wannabe Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the middle son who happens to be gay and has more talent than Hakeem.

Right from the pilot, series creators Lee Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’s The Butler) and Danny Strong, have created an intricate backstory (The Empire label was started with Lucious’s first wife’s Cookie [played by Taraji P. Henson] $400K in drug money) and complicated family dynamics to set the plot in motion. Lucious is wary of his gay son’s appeal to a broader audience, so he only is willing to promote Hakeem’s rap career, while eldest son André has his sights clearly set on his father’s job and a scheming wife who will stop at nothing to put him there.

The family drama alone is a contemporary take on King Lear, with each son jockeying for position in the company. Jamal, upset his father won’t accept him for who he is, decides to go it alone. Cut off from his family’s money, he and his boyfriend hole up in a Brooklyn apartment while Hakeem’s less-than-promising talent is showered with expensive videos and privilege. Cookie, freshly released from jail after 17 years behind bars, returns to the company hellbent on ensuring her legacy and contribution to the label (she was Lucious Lyon’s first and best producer). Henson is terrific in every scene she’s in, chewing the scenery while wearing fashion that would make Wendy Williams proud. The battle between Cookie and Anika, Lucious’s new fiancee is Dynasty-worthy and the best reason to tune in every week. In addition to that, there’s Lucious’s ALS diagnosis, which threatens the Empire IPO, brotherly jockeying for position in the family plans of succession, shakedowns and murder. And that’s just in the first few episodes. The drama has been smart and crackles along like the best of the nighttime soaps, without getting dragged down with a bunch of boring details.

Second best reason would be the music. Of course you cant have an imaginary music label without some music, and Empire recruited Timbaland to oversee the show’s soundtrack. So far, all the original songs and performances have been pretty amazing, often framed as music video devices, but also in ways that don’t strain credulity: a live performance in a nightclub, a interview with Sway, the Teen Choice Awards, etc. One song in particular had Jamal banging around on things in an alley, making music with anything around him. It’s like Glee, without the smaltz.

Since its Lee Daniels, there have been a smorgasbord of guest-stars, including Gabourey Sidibe as Lucious’s fiesty assistant, Judd Nelson as a rival producer, and Courtney Love killing it as a strung out has been rock star who was Empire’s first breakout star. I’m hoping for an Oprah cameo as a Diana Ross type for the season finale (she and Daniels are friends after all). This show is sexy, savvy and shows real promise for FOX being able to turn itself around. With most of their fall shows tanking, FOX desperately needed a hit, and it defintely has one in Empire.

(Oh, and if your wondering why Howard’s hair is different than it is in the pilot, Lee Daniels’s reportedly hated it and demanded he change it once the show was picked up.)

Empire airs at 9/8PM on FOX. Image/clips via FOX Television.

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