Last night, Fox debuted Lee Daniels’ Empire, a new series starring Terrance Howard that carries the DNA of classic primetime dramas like Dynasty and Dallas, but with a hip hop twist.
The show’s marketing campaign has already been compared to Power, by Power’s own executive producer 50 Cent. Empire co-star Taraji P. Henson recently rejected these comparisons, stating that she “pays attention to $’s, NOT cents.”
There are some key differences between the two shows, however. For one, Power is a better show.
Empire proudly boasts the kind of dialogue and scenes that beg for big reactions. Lee Daniels has attempted to create a fast-paced, dishy melodrama designed to set Twitter on fire and ends up being so heavy-handed it makes a Shondaland production look like the work of David Simon.
Howard stars as Luscious Lyon, the head of Empire Entertainment and the show’s approximation of J.R. Ewing. The story begins with Luscious announcing his company’s IPO, and as result, he will groom a successor to ensure Empire’s corporate health. There’s a more devastating and dramatic reason Luscious is so pressed to secure his legacy, revealed much later in the show.
Luscious’s oldest son, Andre, is portrayed by Trai Byers, who is fresh off his turn in Selma as James Forman. He appears to be the most qualified to take Empire’s reigns — educated, corporate and well-groomed. But Andre never earned his entry into the business as an artist, which takes him out of the running. The youngest son is Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), a rapper who is Luscious’s favorite, if not the most naturally talented. Hakeem, for lack of a more fitting description, is a cartoon, making him all the more believable as a modern hip hop artist.
Jamal Lyons (Jussie Smollett) is the middle son and the least archetypal character on the show. As a singer-songwriter, he is the most talented and qualified of Luscious’s sons to run the company but will never earn the respect of his father, since he’s gay.
Complicating matters is Luscious’s wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who has just been released from prison and has designs on the company she helped build with her $400k in drug money. Taraji delights in the role. Cookie is over the top and trashy and has some of the best line delivery. Her wardrobe has even inspired a Tumblr site. Significant demands are being made of the viewer whenever Taraji is not on screen.
The show has the proper setup for Shakespearean, melodramatic fun. Inspired by his wife, who assumes the role of Lady MacBeth, Andre conspires with Cookie to snatch the company in a plot masquerading as a management agreement for Jamal. But the trashy fun suffers from some of the most leaden dialog this side of a Tyler Perry production. Corporate jargon is flung about as if the writers just learned the meanings for “SEC filings” and “quarterly reports.” In Luscious’s speech during the IPO announcement, he blames Internet pirating for artists not being able to eat. While some aspect of that may be true, it wasn’t stated for the other characters in the room; it was meant to lecture the viewer.
Empire is filled with abusive language and over-the-top antics written to shock the audience. Cookie beats Hakeem with a broomstick when he calls her, his own mother, a bitch to her face. A flashback reveals that Luscious stuffed Jamal into a trashcan for playing in his mother’s heels. In between its trashy melodrama, Empire tries to make a statement about homophobia in the Black community, but these lessons fall flat. The writing isn’t nuanced enough to advance any complicated dialogues other than the kind of base arguments you find by logging into Facebook.
There are a number of things that work for the show, chiefly the performances. Most of the actors are able to elevate what’s on the page. Jussie Smollett’s restraint, in particular, is the show’s singular grounding asset. Empire’s musical elements are mostly well-executed and authentic, due to the involvement of Timbaland, who was drafted to provide original compositions.
Few pilots are flawless, and this one contains enough pathology and exploitation that could elicit far more guilt than pleasure. But Empire’s capable performances and the potential for juicy storylines lend themselves to weekly viewing parties or, at the very least, a weekend DVR binge. As long as you have your favorite cocktail nearby.
Follow Renaldo Christopher on Twitter @070180