(**Editor’s Note: this is the actual review of the show, not to be confused with the op-ed, written a few days before.)
When preparing to watch Empire I was prepared to be apathetic at best and repulsed at worse. I walked away with an appreciation for all the actors who collectively make Empire something that is worth watching. Empire is not a revolutionary show but if its cast can continue to perform the way they did on this first episode and the writers get a little more inventive this show could get really good quickly.
Terrance Howard plays Lucious Lyon the hip hop mogul and head of Empire Records. Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) Lucious is forced to consider which one of his sons Hakim (Bryshere Gray), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Andre Lyon (Trai Byers) will serve as his successor. Simultaneously his wife Cookie (Taraji P.Henson) is released from jail, having served 17 years for selling drugs, which was the source of the original startup money.
If this first episode was any indication this will not be a slow moving show. Andre and his wife’s scheming initiate a war between Cookie and Lucious and his two brothers in the hope that he’ll be the last man standing with control of the company. Jamal who is easily the most likeable character on the show is the only true artist out of family besides Lucious, is seeking acceptance from his father, who refuses to accept his son’s homosexuality. For the record the moment where Lucious throws a young Jamal into a trash can has to be the most painful moment of fictional TV I’ll see all year long. By the end of the episode Cookie, who threatened to reveal to the SEC the source of the startup money, has convinced Jamal into releasing a solo album creating a division between him and Hakim who is also releasing an album.
The premise of Empire isn’t original, but maybe that’s why it works. Drug money serving as the initial capital for a record company has been done before, so has the idea of intergenerational battle for control of a business. Truthfully, there was a moment when I began to wonder whether the premise of this show has to be so basic to allow the actors to shine. Let there be no doubt that the actors, especially Taraji P Henson make this show into much more than it could be.
Cookie is the straw that stirs the drink. Like gravity everything and everyone is effected by her presence. Thirty minutes into this episode it’s clear that no other actress could have played this role. From the moment where Cookie shows her unconditional love and acceptance of Jamal while incarcerated, to beating Hakim for his disrespect, scheming with Andre, or her grand entrance in the meeting with the board of directors, it’s really Cookie’s world.
To their credit the rest of the cast does their best to match her effort. Terrance Howard drifts effortlessly from vulnerable to menacing, desperately trying to establish his legacy before his ALS advances. His best moment however is in the first moments of the show, pushing a young singer to use the pain of her brother’s death to sing with more conviction. Jussie Smollett gives Jamal the audience a character to identify with and pull for, while Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers make sure that their characters don’t fade into background.
To be truthful there a lot to dislike about the show. It felt like the writers were trying too hard to establish Andre as the soulless sellout in an interracial marriage. Hakim sometimes feels like a caricature of what an MC is supposed to be. Even the obligatory murder felt rushed, like it should have happened a couple of episodes later.
Ultimately Empire is a show that is carried on the backs of its actresses and actors. If the writers can match the effort of the cast this Empire has a chance to be a lasting one.