Fox’s dark new drama Empire is so on the nose at times, I’m faintly surprised it wasn’t called TV Series About A Family in the Music Business. Yet despite its numerous shortcomings, Empire has a lot of interesting things happening at once, and essentially functions as a primetime soap opera where you can dance your way through the ham-fisted parts. Plus, it reunites Hustle & Flow stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson for two of the most comically heightened performances of their respective careers. This one is definitely staying on my playlist.
Howard plays the expertly named Lucious Lyon, CEO of Empire Entertainment, a successful record label that Lucious started in the midst of his crime-ridden drug-dealing entry into adulthood. Things are looking up, because Empire is going all public and stock market-y for the first time, only Lucious has been going to the doctor a lot recently, and his diagnosis isn’t good. But the company must go on!
The three Lyon sons are all in the running to take over when Lucious is no longer able to run things. The oldest, Andre (Trai Byers), is the college-educated businessman who knows more about dollar signs than musical notes, and will more than likely do anything to take over. Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the non-egotistical musician and songwriter whose destiny as a music mogul is likely nonexistent due to his being gay, something Lucious bullheadedly fails to mentally allow. And then there’s the firecracker rap(per)scallion Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), whose talent on the mic is the spark in Lucious’ eyes, although his immaturity makes him a risk.
As if Lucious didn’t have enough going on, his ex-wife and the boys’ mother Cookie (Henson) just got out of a long jail stint and wants in on Empire’s success, since it was her money that was used to build it up. You get the sense that all the money in this show was earned somewhat illegally, as Lucious and Cookie’s criminal days are referenced often enough. Because no matter where the narratives branch off to for Andre, Jamal and Hakeem, this is definitely The Howard and Henson Show, right down to their hairdos.
On the positive side, the energy driving Empire is constant, whether it’s because tensions are running mountainously high or because there’s a great hook being played on the soundtrack. (It isn’t surprising that this emotionally bonkers show was developed by Lee Daniels and his Butler screenwriter Danny Strong.) The trouble with any series centering on “hit music” is generally the terrible music, but even though Hakeem’s talents can seem goofy, I enjoyed just about all of the hypothetically radio friendly performances. Though I might have preferred actual live recordings, rather than the super-polished audio tracks delivered here, as produced by Timbaland. (Courtney Love’s rock star guest role should be interesting.)
On the downside, Empire wades through socially regressed waters at times, and it feels a lot more like 1970s writers trying to write futuristic drama, rather than modern brains tackling old school bigotry. There is one flashback scene involving Lucious’ reaction to a young effeminate Jamal that made me howl with awkward laughter, because it just goes there. Cookie’s reaction to Andre’s white wife (Kaitlin Doubleday) is equally cringe-worthy, and Henson’s performance throughout flips between sassy bitch and asshole mom, although she pulls off both accordingly. (She actually says “Cookie’s coming home,” when she gets out of jail, which was weirdly TV-ish.) And for every good song, there’s an equally terrible piece of the musical score where the elasticity of your heartstrings will be tested.
Still, Lucious Lyon’s reign atop the ladder of success will likely be a fun one to watch, even if it runs on as much schmaltz as it does believable drama. Good performances, good tunes and an engaging pair of lead characters give Empire the potential to be a great show, but it’ll need a little more studio polish first.
You can nod your head along to Empire when it premieres on Fox on Wednesday, January 7, at 9 p.m. ET.