‘Empire’ Premiere Delivers a Compelling Hip-Hopera Worthy of Your Attention
After 50 Cent made headlines for accusing the creators of Fox's 'Empire' of stealing the marketing tactics used for his Starz series ‘Power,' the expectations for the new show reached fever pitch.
Viewers tuned in for the pilot episode on Wednesday (Jan. 7) expecting to get a ‘Power’ knockoff, but ‘Empire’ was no copy-cat show. This is the music industry, for better or for worse.
From the gate, it's clear that this tale is a different spin on the gangster-turned-legit business man storyline. This dramatized portrayal of the music industry feels like a remixed Shakespearen play with a touch of ‘Glee’ and some John Singleton flair (just watch ‘Baby Boy’ and you'll get the idea). Here you get a lot of musical vibes (the show opens up with Timbaland's artist V. Bozeman showcasing her stellar pipes), passion and betrayal.
Lucious Lyon, Terrance Howard's character, is an overzealous, narcissistic bad guy-turned-record label executive. He may not be the nicest man, but he sure knows how to make a hit. Just as Lucious is about to embark on his biggest career move yet, taking his Empire Entertainment public, karma catches up with him and his world is flipped upside down.
He’s diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's Disease (remember the viral ice bucket challenges last year?) and is given three years to live. But the weight of his deteriorating health and inevitable faith is nothing compared to the drama that hits him next.
His former partner-in-crime and ex-wife Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, is surprisingly released from prison after doing a 17-year bid. Her sudden reentry into his life means only one thing: she wants a piece of the company she helped to create. Meanwhile, Cookie and Lucious’ three sons -- Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) -- are all suffering internal battles of their own in a quest to be the heir to their father’s throne.
Andre, the suit and tie-type, appears as the most viable candidate for the position. He's married to a seemingly money-hungry white woman who force-feeds him mysterious pills. He works hard, knows the business end and has a proven track record of being reliable. However, it’s not that simple for Lucious. The gangster in him wants blood, even if it means putting his sons against one another to fight it out for the chance to run his company.
Then there's Jamal, the gay, uber-talented R&B singer vying for his father’s acceptance and respect, but it's all overshadowed by his sexuality. The flashbacks in this episode are no joke. The moment when Lucious throws his own son in a garbage can because he decided to play dress up in a scarf and heels was a tough moment to watch. This is one storyline that will be compelling to see unfold in the episodes to come.
Hakeem, the baby boy, is an immature party animal with the temper of Chris Brown and the rap skills reminiscent of Rae Sremmurd and Tyga. When Cookie goes after him with a broom and beats him, viewers just had to see flashbacks of their own childhood beatings. One thing you never do is call your mom a bitch. Lesson learned for Hakeem.
Although each of the sons have their own soppy storyline, the first episode focuses on Lucious' failure to approve of Jamal's sexuality. The heartbreaking flashback scene shows Jamal as a little boy sashaying in women’s clothing. After seeing his son “act like a sissy” dad becomes enraged and proceeds to throw little Jamal in the garbage like an unwanted piece of discarded trash. The symbolic gesture, callous and disheartening as it is, touches on major cultural and societal issues when it comes to being gay and black.
While we commend the focus on sexuality, it's Cookie who steals the show -- at least in this episode. If you've seen ‘Baby Boy’ and ‘Hustle & Flow’ then you know what we mean. Cookie’s hardcore, take-no-s--- attitude drives the show. Underneath her tough exterior is a mother, who loves her children and is truly sorry for missing them grow into men. Hakeem was a 1-year-old baby when she was incarcerated and was excluded from prison visits along with Lucious and Jamal -- as for why Andre didn’t see her in 17 years, that is still a mystery.
In an era where scripted television is in a rat race for survival against reality TV, ‘Empire’ is sure to sprint to the finish line. In fact, the reason why it debuted with the highest ratings in years for the network could be attributed to creator Lee Daniels (the man behind the 2013 film, ‘The Butler’) successfully crafting a hybrid hip-hopera. This is the kind of television show that you tune in to criticize, applaud, laugh at, tweet about and bring up during dinners with your friends. You may even shed a tear or two by the time the season finale arrives. With the flashbacks we've seen so far, you never know.
With cast members like Terrance and Taraji, hot button topics and an inside look at how the music industry operates -- even if it's not entirely accurate (we all know there is no such title as "Head of A&R") -- it looks like Fox has a surefire hit on its network hands. The script, while not stimulating on all occasions but infused with more than enough musical performances (thanks to executive music producer Timbaland), will need to evolve for 'Empire' to lock in the Wednesday night TV slot. We're going back for seconds next week to find out.