Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard

It could be a while before I’m ready to give myself permission to fully engage with Empire. Not a “couple of episodes” while, I’m talking about a “season two, episode seven” while. It looks too good, too stylish, too much fun to be true, and there’s nothing worse than a terrible show walking around wearing a stellar pilot as a shawl. It’s especially disappointing when a show sounds comically bad in its early stages of development, then winds up bolting out of the gate. Smash did that. Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip did that. Now Empire is that show, dangling out a concept that sounds impossible to execute well, then launching with a pilot good enough to upend expectations.

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One moment from the pilot in particular led me to believe this show could find its rhythm. It’s the reunion scene between Cookie, who is recently out of jail after 17 years, and her son Andre. Moments before, Andre is conspiring with Rhonda, his white wife, planning how best to sow discord between his brothers so he can emerge as Empire Records’ heir apparent. As I watched Andre take his marching orders from Rhonda, I wondered how long it would take before there would be a conversation about her influence over Andre, not just as his woman, but as his white woman. I knew it would come eventually, but I didn’t think it would come within minutes. And yet, there was Andre, telling Cookie a war between Jamal and Hakeem might be inevitable. And there was Cookie: “Is that what that white girl’s telling you?”

Having only known Cookie for less than an hour, I’m certain that’s something Cookie would say. Taraji P. Henson’s performance is like some kind of thespian magic trick. How can she pull off these lines? How could anyone? How is it possible, in such a short span of time, to inject depth, pathos and contradiction in what could have been a blinding stereotype in lesser hands? I haven’t read the Empire pilot script, and I have no desire to, because there’s no way Cookie reads well on the page. Seriously, read this: “I wanna show you a faggot really can run this company.” But Henson is so dimensional and committed, she defies gravity.

That might sound like an insult to the script, written by co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. It’s actually the opposite. The script communicates who Cookie is in many subtle ways, not that “subtle” is a word to toss around lightly in conversations about Empire. Empire is attuned to all its characters. Lucious Lyon heads Empire Records, which echoes Bad Boy in its salad days, and is diagnosed with ALS shortly before Cookie’s release. Lucious tells his fundamentally different sons, Andre, Jamal and Hakeem—don’t get me started on those names—he’s deciding which one of them he’ll choose to take his place.

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It’s a good, old-fashioned King Lear set-up, hence the wink, but it has an irresistibly contemporary setting. The use of a hip hop label as the backdrop for a nighttime soap is exceptional, and for good reason. Even if a show about a record label isn’t necessarily a musical, it has to have original music in it. For the show to succeed, the music has to be better than, say, the sketches on Studio 60. The music in Empire, produced by Timbaland, is fantastic. Fox is going to monetize the hell out of these songs, and good for them. It’s an impressive thing to hear original hip hop and R&B songs written for a television show sound like they wouldn’t be out of place on the radio.

Luckily, there’s as much attention paid to the story elements, with a lot of intriguing character dynamics laid out in the pilot. As many strategic alliances are forged in this hour of television as in a mediocre season of Survivor. The arc of season one will pit Lucious against Cookie for control of the company, with pending album releases from Hakeem and Jamal. It’s clear Hakeem and Jamal will eventually stop being their parents’ marionettes and start battling each other of their own accord, but hopefully that’s a good while away. Before they climb into the mud, it would be nice to see Hakeem and Jamal as much the collateral damage of their parents’ war as the ammunition in it.

Andre, meanwhile, is a question mark. He’s prone to scheming, a symptom of the insecurity he’s developed as a result of being the odd man out in Lucious’ musical legacy. Lucious openly questions whether Empire needs to be run by a celebrity, not some B-school grad who couldn’t freestyle a measly eight bars if his life depended on it. But I hope Andre is developed a bit more because as it stands, he risks becoming a human catalyst, existing only to cause trouble for the characters the audience is actually invested in. If he got his own flashback with Cookie, I’m having trouble remembering which one it was, and that means Andre needs bit more shading.

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The same could be said for Lucious, of course. Terrence Howard is excellent as Lucious. He’s well-cast, to begin with. Not only did Howard prove at home in this milieu in Hustle & Flow, he looks right. Lucious needs to look like a drug kingpin turned hip hop impresario—equal parts S-Curl box model, ‘round-the-way ne’er-do-well, and corner boy too smart for his own good. Howard looks like that, especially with that downy bed of hair.

But Lucious is a mystery, which works initially, but can’t last too long with him so central to the story. The pilot shrewdly plays coy about who Lucious really is early on. There’s quite an arc from the opening scene, with Lucious coaching his artist to deliver an emotionally raw performance, to him pulling a gun to shoot Bunkie in the head. Bunkie was marked for death pretty early. But while we saw Lucious do some awful things, and knew killing Bunkie would likely become one of them, something didn’t quite track leading up to Bunkie’s murder. There’s a lot of set up in a pilot like this one, so not everything can be properly nuanced, but there’s still a gap between the Lucious who shot Bunkie and the Lucious in every other scene.

Hopefully that’s a temporary. I don’t mind Lucious as a wild card, but unless there’s some connective tissue between his many sides, the character will feel too small to fill up the space reserved for him. And the problem is that in Empire, there is no unused space, there are only new places for Cookie to prop her feet up. Hakeem and Jamal aside, right now, my money’s on Cookie.

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Stray observations:

  • I just want to say how brilliant it is for Cookie to be the character’s name. That’s a master stroke.
  • On the other hand: Andre, Jamal and Hakeem? What is this, a word problem on the math portion of a culturally-sensitive standardized test?
  • Which kind of uncle is “Uncle Vernon”?
  • The scene with Jamal as a kid was the most heartbreaking thing. God. He put that boy in the trash. I was expecting Jamal to get beaten with a shoe but…Jesus. That was way worse.
  • There was a Kehinde Wiley painting in the Lyons’ Lair. Points for that.
  • The score is completely insane. I get the idea of combining the original songs with a more traditional soap score, and Fil Eisler, who also scores Revenge, is a good choice. I’m just not sure it’s working. Every time I heard one of those cello-heavy stingers I cracked up a little.
  • Jamal and Hakeem writing the song together was lovely. There’s a lot of piano-rap in this show. Their early version sounded like someone mashed-up Lil’ Wayne and Tori Amos. Which…could work?
  • Lucious: “Don’t say nothing bad about Dr. King!” Okay, so Henson doesn’t get all the good lines.

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