Have you ever had a feeling that you knew something was terrible, but you loved it anyway? Like the extra-greasy fast-food burger that you knew wouldn’t settle well on your stomach hours later, but you’d still eat again?
That’s the aftertaste of Fox’s new hip-hop drama Empire, created by film producer-director Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. It’s imperfect, but it’s still pretty delicious to watch.
Empire is the deliciously trashy hip-hop soap opera that isn’t what commercial hip-hop needs right now, but what it deserves. It’s filmed all slick and pop, like a high-quality, radio-ready production, yet is as clunky and cliché as the typical money-cash-clothes rhyme. The sex and violence are limited; it can’t do what Starz’s hip-hop-tinged crime drama Power does because Empire appears on Fox and not premium cable. But Empire also doesn’t take itself anywhere near as seriously as Power. It’s in this for fun.
The main plot is straight “Big Willie” Shakespeare in the high-end hood. Even the characters themselves refer to the show’s initial premise as akin to King Lear. Mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) has ALS and is likely to die within the next three years. He hasn’t told his family yet, but he has told his sons that he will be picking his successor soon and that anyone is game. The sons all have their strengths: Andre is coldly ambitious, college-educated and lives for the label and is married to the show’s resident Lady Macbeth; Hakeem’s the hot, up-and-coming hip-hop talent who seems more interested in partying than working; and Jamal is Empire’s Hamlet, the moody middle child, R&B singer-songwriter, who is incredibly talented but holding himself back.
It’s an improbable but deliciously messy situation. In Empire we have a man inviting his children to go all “hunger games” to be head of a soon-to-be publicly traded company of which dear old Dad isn’t even the majority shareholder anymore and has a board to answer to. In other words, it sounds crazy but will be fun to watch anyway. In the background, chickens are coming home to roost all over the place and are demanding money, power and respect from Lucious that he is uninterested in giving.
The show, as of the first episode, isn’t iconic TV. The Sopranos set in the music industry it is not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining or that the performances aren’t good.
The best comes from Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon, Lucious’ ex-wife. This is primarily because she gets the most to work with: She’s fresh out of prison, a woman scorned, estranged from her children and desperately seeking what she believes is hers from the company she helped found through drug money. She basically gets to do everything—comedy, drama, tears, screaming, beat a grown child with a broom handle, gesticulating, weave flicking—all while clicking her heels in outfits ranging from ’90s Lil’ Kim “No Time” ghetto glamorous to what visually amounts to a high-end version of the Jaclyn Smith collection. She’s a riot, and every inch of the Indian Remy on her head knows it.
Less fun is Terrence Howard, who plays a variation of the same character he always plays, only more serious and unlikeable than usual. Howard is best when he can be a greasy charmer with a brutal wit and amoral temperament (like his turns in The Best Man films and his adulterous brief spot in The Butler), which is what initially made him seem like an obvious choice for the lead in Empire. He gets the greasy, but not enough of the cocky cool that is his trademark. Instead he sulks around, clothing and hair inspired by 1984 Purple Rain-era Morris Day, lacking some of the menacing heft expected of an ex-drug dealer/gangster-turned-mogul. He plays it pretty tepid and almost seems a little bored in his conk and paisleys, but that may have more to do with what was lacking in the pilot’s script than Howard’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” chops. Little glimmers of how dark he can get are always present, but the execution seems a bit off.
Empire is at its best when it’s completely sensational and outlandish, with Howard’s character, in a flashback, dumping his son Jamal—then only 4 or 5 years old—in a garbage can for dressing up in his mother’s heels and scarf. The scene has a strong, over-the-top “Where did that come from?” feeling, yet still seemed plausible (in fact, it’s similar to a moment from Daniels’ own childhood).
Jamal, played as an adult by Jussie Smollett, is an über-talented musician who happens to be gay. He also happens to have the most sympathetic—if familiar-feeling—storyline. He’s the sensitive outsider who only desires his father’s love and approval but will never get it. Howard’s Lucious believes that Jamal can “choose” to be with women if he desires. Much discussion is made of him not being able to be openly gay and still be a marketable R&B singer to a socially conservative African-American audience.
Empire does get bonus points for working with legendary hip-hop producer Timbaland to create Billboard Top 40-ready tracks for the cast. When the music is good, it’s pretty impressive, and when it’s bad it’s still better than your worst commercial rap.
Will Empire win any awards next year? Not likely. In fact, the only thing that may save it from getting lost in the prime-time shuffle is its American Idol lead-in and if it can keep the melodrama turned up to 11 at all times. Judging from the previews and knowing Lee Daniels’ flair for the salacious (see The Paperboy), it’s pretty likely that’s the entire idea.