TV Review - Empire

Terrence Howard got his start playing singer Jackie Jackson in the ABC-TV movie The Jacksons: An American Dream (1992). Howard was nominated for his first and only Oscar playing a rapper in Hustle & Flow (2005). Now, his greatest role in a series, this one, has him again playing someone in the music industry. Howard plays Lucious Lyon, a hip hop mogul who runs his own record label called Empire Entertainment. He's ruthless. He's cunning. He's ambitious, and he's planning on taking the company public, onto the stock exchange, and making it a corporation. He also wants to further dominate the R&B and hip hop field, but there are several stumbling blocks along the way.

Taraji P. Henson co-stars as Cookie Lyon, the former wife of Lucious. She's just been released from serving a nearly two-decade prison sentence. Once Lucious realizes that Cookie is getting out of jail, he knows that she could and probably will be a stumbling block, and in fact she is. Cookie went to prison on drug charges, drugs that Lucious also dealt and helped to traffic. Cookie got busted but Lucious didn't, and his response was to divorce her, never visit, even though she's the mother of his three sons and build his company without her, even though it was also her, near-half million that funded the company's start. Needless to say, Cookie has a grudge against Lucious.

Lucious does have three sons who are all now 18 or older. All of whom have some connection or aspiration in Lucious' company. Trai Byers (Selma) plays Andre Lyon, the eldest son who graduated from an Ivy League business school and is the one who is the most ambitious to take his father's place as CEO or President of the company. Jussie Smollett (The Skinny) plays Jamal Lyon, the middle child who is an extremely talented singer-songwriter but who is not fostered and in fact hated by Lucious for being gay. Bryshere Gray, in his first screen-acting role, plays Hakeem Lyon, the youngest son who is an up-and-coming rapper. He's rowdy and horny, wild and narcissistic, but he's not as talented as Jamal.

Hakeem has no desire to run his father's company. He's a bit of a spoiled brat as a result of Lucious constantly coddling him. Lucious perhaps sees Hakeem as the most like him. Conversely, Lucious sees Jamal as the least like him. Lucious is highly homophobic. In a flashback, Lucious sees Jamal cross-dressing as a little boy and coldly assaults his own son. Andre is cold too. He's a cold and calculating businessman, which is a facet of Lucious too but he rarely engages in that side with Andre.

Given these characters, the initial premise of the show seems ridiculous. Lucious announces in the pilot episode that he's going to name a successor to his company, someone to take his role. There's no specific timeline, but he says his successor will be one of his sons. Presumably, this is motivated because Lucious is diagnosed with ALS or what's commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease. If you've seen The Theory of Everything, then you know ALS has no cure and can kill a person within a couple of years of diagnosis or a person can live for decades and decades but be totally debilitated, or paralyzed.

What's ridiculous is that Lucious' timeline is unknown. He could have a couple of years or he could live for a half-century or more. Instead of spending time getting closer to his family, he's pitting them against each other. Clearly, it's a contrivance on the part of the writers, led by Danny Strong and Lee Daniels, to have a family rivalry on par with other prime-time soaps like Dallas or Dynasty, or even daytime soaps like The Young and the Restless or The Bold and the Beautiful. It's also a contrivance that could make sense in the twisted mind of Lucious Lyon.

His twisted, unabashed, homophobic, greedy, arrogant ambition with pimp swagger is matched by Cookie's unfiltered, loud, brash, fierce sass. As played by Taraji P. Henson, she is a total scene stealer. She can't help but suck all the oxygen out the room. Cookie's chief goal at the moment is to prove that her son Jamal can be a huge star in R&B and hip hop despite being gay.

There's also criminal and police intrigue. There's the drugs of course, but the pilot episode ends with Lucious committing a murder. That may or may not be a looming issue, much like with Vic Mackey in FX's The Shield or like with Frank Underwood in Netflix's House of Cards, but it feels like something that has been put aside and quickly forgotten for now.

The main thrust thus far has been to provide a platform for Howard and Henson to give big and bold performances. It also provides a behind-the-curtain look at the music industry with regard to R&B and especially hip hop. It's the all-black and ghetto version of Nashville. It's certainly a lot more fun than that ABC, country-music series. However, like that series, it is producing great songs performed greatly by the cast.

It opens with the song "What is Love" by V. Bozeman. Veronika Bozeman first appeared to me performing with Timothy Bloom on the song "Til the End of Time" on Bloom's EP, The Budding Rose. All the other songs on the show are performed by Jamal and Hakeem, as each works independently on his own album. Cookie manages Jamal and Lucious manages Hakeem. It's sibling rivalry along with a kind of The War of the Roses.

Even though the show was created by Lee Daniels, an openly gay black man, and even though the show has been upfront with dealing with the issue of homosexuality in the R&B and hip hop world, I'm still noticing an imbalance.

The character of Jamal and his boyfriend Michael Sanchez, played by Rafael de la Fuente, aren't given equal time. The pendulum could of course swing the other way in future episodes, but there is less of a sense of Jamal and Michael's relationship than any other's on the show. For example, we've seen Jamal's two straight brothers have sex and have sex with multiple people, but, in the first five episodes, we haven't seen Jamal have sex.

Arguably, we haven't seen Cookie have sex either, but she has so many other things going and she's in so many scenes that she doesn't feel as cheated. For example, she gets a great scene with guest star Cuba Gooding, Jr. who plays a songwriter from her past. They don't have sex, but there's great chemistry and tension there, which was a lot.

Speaking of guest stars, this show is building a lot, particularly black music artists. Gladys Knight and Anthony Hamilton have made cameos as themselves. Oddly enough, really good black actors like Malik Yoba and Gabourey Sidibe have been thus far wasted. They haven't been given much to do to make them standout. Yet, this is a fun show and I'm curious to see where it goes.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-14-DSLV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Wednesdays at 9PM on FOX.


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