When Fox announced Empire, a drama created by award winning director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) and screenwriter Danny Strong (The Butler, Game Change, The Hunger Games,) I looked forward to a carefully crafted soap opera set amongst a family going to war over a record company crown. Then they had to go and throw the gay kid into the damn garbage can.
Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow) stars as Lucious Lyon, ruthless patriarch of the Empire record company who has contracted cancer. Wait, ALS. I have no doubt it cancer then the ice bucket challenge happened and here we are. It’s a mini PSA as Howard exclaims, “There’s no cure for that,” and the woe eyed doctor may as well look right into the camera as she responds, “Yes, it’s such a rare auto-immune disease and there’s no cure in sight.” Why not just go full Wayans Bros. and shout “MESSAGE!” here or any of the many times this script over explains?
Howard plays Lucious with a ruthless menace not seen since his memorably scummy turn in Dead Presidents, meeting with and pitting his three unwitting sons against each other for the keys to the company as he contemplates his last three years to live. That he does it dressed in evil Hugh Hefner regalia, all dark, paisley smoking jackets and turtlenecks with house shows, is even more delightful and perplexing. During the cold opening, his idea of fatherly advice to a young singer in the booth dropping verses about love is to “think about that time last year when your brother died and you had to go identify the body.” Romance!
“You mean we King Lear?!” exclaims Jamal in the meeting (MESSAGE!,) Lucious’ talented, gay son who’s a cross between John Legend and Usher. A self-proclaimed “sissy,” Lucious’ hatred for Jamal ranges from a flashback tossing him into an old-school steel garbage can for wearing heels at age 8 to explaining to him that his sexuality is a choice. Rupert Murdoch must love this shit. To be fair, some of Jamal’s scenes are semi-autobiographical to Daniels who’s own father was an abusive, homophobic prick.
Oldest son Andre, suited up with a Wharton MBA and a white wife, proceeds to explain the plot of King Lear in case you’re not up on your Shakespeare or Google skills.
Lucious’ youngest, Hakeem, an aspiring rapper continuously dressed like Shawn Carter from “Big Pimpin” era (there’s even a yacht party!) but with limp raps in the style of Big Sean, sips a brew uninterested with his Timberlands resting on his dad’s $20,000 table underneath an equally lavish Kehinde Wiley painting.
Prior to taking this audience with his sons, Lucious has a big meeting which you know must be big because his head of A & R, Anika, asks him in the limo beforehand: “Are you ready for your BIG meeting?” So big that the ONLY meeting Lucious will acquiesce to outside of it is a fundraiser but “tell Barack this is the last one for a few months.”
The meeting is actually to take the company public and it’s a curious endeavor indeed. Economics pros help me out: if you’re going to take a record business public, do you celebrate that by giving an impassioned speech about how the internet has destroyed musician’s ability to make money and therefore your own? Sign me up for the IPO homie! And not only businesses, he continues, but the evil INTERNET has also made it impossible for disenfranchised youth living in poverty to overcome the struggles that he did as a 9 year old drug dealer who turned to music. Huh? I’m going to do some uninformed and non-scientific math here for Daniels and Strong and guess that the percentage of kids emerging from poverty as money making recording artists is about .0001 and that 75% of hip hop artists – even on major labels like Empire – put music out on the internet via free mixtape sites like livemixtapes.com or datpiff.com (Lee, Danny, hit me up I’m happy to consult.) Be sure to catch the cringe worthy early rap scene with a young Lucious dressed like Camp Lo rapping with the cadence of Jay-Z’s awkward “Looooove” line on Kanye’s monster but coming off more like the “Oops, pow, surprise” guy from the barber shop on Chappelles Show.
Taraji P. Henson finally emerges from jail as Cookie, Lucious’ estranged wife and mother to his sons. She also happens to be the initial investor in Empire with 400 large of drug money 17 years prior which, if known, could seriously monkeywrench the Empire IPO. She goes pretty fast from “What the hell is public?” to ““What if I was to disclose to the SEC that I was the original investor with 400k in drug money? Your IPO would be effectively denied” but hell, we only have an hour and this is the age of iTunes University and Udacity. GET YOURS COOKIE. (Me.) F YOU INTERNET! (My interpretation of Lucious.) Cookie spits flames (“Kiss my black ass!”) but hasn’t lost all humanity as she extorts hush money and control of Jamal’s singing career from Lucious: “I wanna show you a faggot CAN really run this company!” Um. Progress? Motherly confidence aside, may want to keep that word tucked in, especially when it’s coming from the mouth of a somewhat sympathetic, if psycho, character in a show watched by 9 million.
By the end of the pilot the stage is set with Andre taking his wife Rhonda’s advice and selfishly pushing his mother Cookie to manage Jamal who was helping Hakeem with raps over some of Lucious’ wack tracks but who now doesn’t want to help anymore because daddy hates him and both brothers forgot that just the night before they were all bonding over “Best believe they tryin’ to make us kill each other” and then Lucious murders his Farnsworth Bentley type butler dude Bunkie also. Follow me? Exactly. Read that a few times, you’ll pick it up.
Look, if you don’t want holes don’t eat swiss cheese and Empire is as cheesy as a soap opera comes and more dramatic than freshman theater majors. The pilot is littered with oddly direct plot explanations that I’ll give the benefit of the doubt as helping those out who are experiencing the show how it is meant to be: 3 gold bottles deep with loud, nondescript R&B playing in the background. You could even make those moments into a drinking game. It’s 2015 but Empire is straight out of the 90s and a fascinating, schizophrenic look so far at characters who may even be less violent or audacious than their inspirations: Diddy, Suge, Master P and the like.