Empire – Series Premiere – Recap: No One Man Should Have All That Power
Recap and review of Empire – Series Premiere – Pilot:
Empire seems like the kind of show that would be risky for HBO, much less for network TV. Particularly a network like FOX, which isn’t usually in the business of risk-taking. A modern retelling of King Lear, populated with anti-heroes and broken souls? It’s not the most palatable premise for a network TV landscape that privileges by-the-numbers procedurals, reality talent shows, and a whole lot of sports. But Empire is a risk worth taking, because it’s a show worth watching.
Of course, that comes with a caveat: yes, this pilot episode is outstanding, but not every episode is going to be helmed by Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels. And that could be a problem if we end up with directors, in subsequent episodes, who don’t get the material as well as him. The story is deceptively simple, but with room for loads of complexity: Lucious Lyon is a former drug dealer turned hip hop mogul whose company, Empire Entertainment, is about to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. However, matters are complicated when Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), his ex-wife and former partner-in-crime, is released from prison after 17 years. She wants her piece of the company she helped fund with her $400,000 nearly 20 years earlier. And she’s willing to thrust his demons into the spotlight, threatening to reveal that the company was founded on drug money, unless he gives her the contract to manage her middle child, an extremely talented singer-songwriter. It’s part of a power play that will allow her to claim control of the company by creating a massive crossover star, which is interesting enough on its own, without even getting into how Lucious and Cookie’s three sons, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) are locked in a struggle for control of the company, since Lucious is intent on choosing one to take over the company once he’s gone. And that may come sooner rather than later, considering Lucious is suffering from an undisclosed medical ailment that is revealed towards the end of the episode (and quickly followed up by a shocking act that effectively ends a friendship Lucious has had since age 14).
It’s an incredibly rich, dense story, but it’s well-told. And more than that, it’s well-acted. Taraji P. Henson is a revelation as Cookie, showing a fierce love for her children that is offset by a certain bitterness about her circumstances. Terrence Howard, meanwhile, is a man who only respects power and potential. He’s ashamed of Andre for his homosexuality, even though he’s easily the most talented of the three sons. We learn about the depth of Lucious’s shame when a flashback reveals that he literally threw Andre in the trash after seeing him walking around in Cookie’s high heels as a little boy. His prejudices run so deep that when he talks about Andre’s talent later in the episode, Lucious is legitimately stunned that Cookie isn’t ashamed of the boy. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it’s her intent to prove to Lucious that “a fa**ot really can run this company.”
And it’s this journey that is the episode’s most poignant, as Andre struggles to earn acceptance in the eyes of a father who privileges his youngest son, Hakeem; a boy who’s disrespectful, lazy, and nowhere near as talented (although, don’t get it twisted, the boy can rap, and has a certain ineffable star quality to him. But as a future CEO of the company? Lucious is as crazy as he is prejudiced). And then there’s Jamal, who attempts to leverage Andre by convincing Cookie to go after his contract, in a strategic attempt to position himself as possible head of Empire, although I’m not entirely certain how that would work just yet. Either way, it’s an absolutely fantastic story that is among the most engrossing on television right now. Seriously, this is an outstanding pilot episode, and there are enough twists and turns here that I find myself eager to see a second episode, even though I’m a bit nervous about what this show will look like without Daniels behind the camera.
However, the positive here is that even if subsequent episodes aren’t directed by someone who’s as keyed into the material as Daniels, the show will still feature music produced by Timbaland, who’s created a varied, diverse musical tapestry. No two artists sound the same on this show, and it adds a lot to the characterization: Hakeem is brash, but has a serpent-like, Lil’ Wayne-type style, filled with braggadocio; Andre has a smooth voice that belies grit and intensity, owing to a painful past spent searching for acceptance (even when Hakeem tells Lucious that Andre is the one responsible for composing his hot new track, Lucious insists that it wasn’t Andre’s music that did it, but the “monster” inside Hakeem that made the track so compelling). All the tracks are original, and they all sound refreshingly current in a way that originals on similar music-themed shows don’t always sound. I absolutely adore some of the tracks that have debuted on Nashville and on iTunes, but I’m not sure I could imagine hearing Rayna James or even Juliette Barnes on contemporary radio in our world. In the show’s world, sure, because the original songs on Nashville have a certain uniformity to them that makes them all feel of a piece with the musical landscape the show is presenting — a landscape that feels fundamentally separate from ours, in some respects. But the tracks on Empire sound like they could easily be on 106 and Park right now, as good or better than similar tracks from similar mainstream artists of the moment. I mean, it’s not like these are surefire chart-toppers, necessarily. But I’m hugely confident in where the show is headed, musically. It’s a confidence I share in the show’s creative direction.
In short, Empire is the best pilot I’ve seen of the 2014-2015 broadcast season so far. This was immaculate television, and bodes well for things to come. This is unlike anything on FOX, or on network TV altogether. Definitely give this pilot a shot.