Is it possible to have everything you could want and still realize that it might not what you truly need? What happens when life throws you a surprise curve-ball? Can you become better or worse from it? That’s part of the premise behind Fox’s new popular series “Empire,” which had one family struggling for money, power and acceptance with varying results.
“Empire” followed Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) a powerful hip hop mogul and an even more ruthless CEO of Empire Entertainment. Lucious had come a very long way from his days as a drug dealer and humble beginnings as a young rapper. His company was close to becoming a publicly traded company that was destined to set his family for life, but his recent ALS diagnosis threatened to destroy everything. Lucious’ doctor gave him three years left before the disease claimed him completely. He decided to inform his three sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) that he was looking to groom one of them to be his heir apparent to run the company when he was longer able to without telling them why. Andre was working to use his college education, his equally ruthless wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) and his alliance with his father’s longtime friend/business partner Vernon Turner (Malik Yoba) to surprise his father. He was also eager to turn his younger brothers against him, while keeping his Bipolar Disorder at bay, which was growing more and more difficult. Jamal and Hakeem had the musical talent that Andre lacked, which often seemed to be an issue with Lucious trusting his oldest son. Jamal and Lucious had a strained relationship as well, because Lucious couldn’t accept that his son was gay. The return of Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) from a 17 year prison sentence also aggravated him as well because she was disrupting his plans for Hakeem’s musical career with her plans for Jamal as well. It also didn’t help that Cookie and Lucious’ new fiancee Anika (Grace Gealey) didn’t get along and were looking to destroy each other. Will Lucious be able to salvage his family or will his own secrets destroy them in the process?
In terms of questions, the show has posed quite a few for the past eight episodes and still managing to surprise viewers each time. It also helped that the show’s rapid and rather truncated season also made viewers eager for the next episode long before it was even slated to air. The show’s pace and storytelling made it fascinating to watch, even though the occasional plot twist seemed to have come from a daytime soap opera. What makes this show different was the execution of each twist, such as the reveal that Jamal had a sudden daughter come out of the woodwork. The show was wise to slowly insert the little girl into the fold without pulling too much focus from the rest of the cast. The series has also made wise use of its Timbaland produced music as well as its plethora of guest stars without allowing them to trump the regular cast. Naomi Campbell has had a recurring guest role as Hakeem’s girlfriend that had a unique dynamic with Lucious’ youngest son. The show’s most memorable scene involving Campbell’s character was when she crossed paths with Henson’s Cookie. The two characters didn’t mince words in any way, which provided a colorful exchange that was only a couple of steps below a public brawl. Hopefully, there will be a cat-fight to end all cat-fights coming soon, because that would be worth the price of admission. It’s also nice for viewers to get the chance to see the dynamic between each family member and have glimpses of their own stories. The most disturbing one through was the one involving Andre and Rhonda’s marriage, which definitely brought new meaning to an open marriage. Byers and Doubleday made the scenes work by bringing a dark sense of humor to them so that viewers wouldn’t get too unnerved by them. Even though, there were a few cracks starting to show in that marriage likely to be revealed very soon. Only time will tell if that’s the case.
As for breakout performances, Howard and Henson led the pack as their characters provided some very diverse stories to the show. Howard’s Lucious proved to be a very complicated character because viewers either wanted to like him or hate him. Sometimes, these feelings often came about in the same scene. In the most recent episode, Howard’s Lucious appeared to be the loving father who supported Jamal performing one of his most popular songs. That feeling quickly went away when Jamal changed some of the lyrics as a way to come out to the world. Lucious’ disapproval of Jamal’s sexuality became apparent when his look of pride evaporated into utter anger and disappointment. After that, his support of Jamal and working with him on an album became a failed concept. It made it hard for viewers to root for Lucious when he seemed to love his family in one breath and berate them the next. Howard has managed to walk a very thin tightrope by making Lucious both likable as well as he dealt with a life altering diagnosis and completely unlikable as he let his darker impulses get the better of him, such as when he murdered a longtime friend. He also had unbelievable chemistry with Henson’s Cookie that showcased that there was always going to be a thin line between love and hate for those characters. Henson’s Cookie, on the other hand, could’ve been easily a character stereotype of the colorful ex-wife who was always looking to make trouble, but she made the character realistic as she tried to develop a relationship with each of her sons. Of course, she easily has the most quotable dialogue of anyone in the cast, but she also provided the most heart as she could go from anger to sadness without blinking an eye. Let’s hope that both Henson and Howard is able to stick because the show wouldn’t be the same without either.
“Empire” premiered on January 7th and airs Wednesdays at 9:00 PM on Fox.
Verdict: The show’s constant twists and turns as well as memorable performances from the dynamic leads made it appointment television each week.
TV Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars
1 Star (Mediocre)
2 Stars (Averagely Entertaining)
3 Stars (Decent Enough to Pass Muster)
4 Stars (Near Perfect)
5 Stars (Gold Standard)