The family business is all about the personal “business” of the family. Blood is thicker than water. Insert another overused proverb here. Empire‘s premise may not be the most original, but its promise is that it may eventually become magnificent.
The show centers around the Lyon family music empire, headed by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). With significant rapping skills, valuable direction from his then wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and the stolen drug money she gave him before she took the fall for the crime, Lucious was set up to be a major music mogul. Lucious is on the verge of making Empire Records an IPO, which will only raise its current value. Just around that time, Cookie is released from prison and visits her son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and his boyfriend Michael (Rafael de La Fuente), mainly to get him on her side before going to claim what she considers hers from Lucious. Lucious is already facing some pressing medical concerns which forces him to start grooming a successor out of his three sons. The eldest, Andre (Trai Byers), is in it for the power while the youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), is in it for the glory. The middle son, Jamal, all but disowned for his sexual preference, is in it for the art.
Andre’s wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), plays Lady Macbeth to Andre’s already overly ambitious aspirations. She suggests pitting the two other brothers against each other so that he would be the only obvious choice as successor. This pits Cookie and Jamal against Lucious and Hakeem, each with their own self-serving purposes, and each with people on the sidelines waiting for the dust to settle so that they can claim their part.
We’ve heard this story before, that is true. This amalgam of Shakespearean plots and differently named characters will easily have you rolling your eyes. It reeks of King Lear with smatterings of Hamlet and a few others, of course. That is where the brunt of the problem lies. Once you know the story it is heavily drawing from, it becomes glaringly obvious what is going to happen next. The pilot episode was full of predictable turns and and even more predictable characters. They come off as underdeveloped and flat, when they should be more mysterious and harder to get a read on. The show lacks the same veracity and visceral emotions that Lee Daniels brought to Precious and The Butler. It instead stays on the safe side, trying to please more people than actually forcing them to come to terms with the real, vicious nature of the business. Too much glam, not enough grit.
One thing that will please the people is the music. Like Nashville, this show promises to bring us original music on a semi-frequent basis, which is a big enough endeavor in itself. So far, the music is great, giving us freestyle rap, soulful R&B ballads, and a combination of the two. We should expect some great industry cameos and covers of popular genre music as we’ve seen in Nashville. I have also come to terms with the fact that these types of shows might be a future part of television since they are able to double-dip their profits from both the television side and the music sales side. I’m fine with that, but only so long as the story and narrative get just as much attention as the original music. Otherwise, what’s the point? So far, Empire is showing that the emphasis is on the music, leaving the narrative to hang in the wind.
It would be a shame if it didn’t change, especially considering the powerhouse talent involved. We know how fierce Howard can be, and he delivers that same strength to this show. The real focus is on Henson, and rightly so. Her character is really one of the only vehicles of drama and tension in the show, and she has shown us that she is more than strong enough to carry the weight of the show on her shoulders, even though she shouldn’t have to. Surprisingly, a severely underutilized actress is Sidibe. She has been relegated to the background, serving mostly as minimal support to characters, and the very occasional/brief comic relief. Her talent demands something more than being treated like a second-thought tertiary character, and I hope that changes soon, for the show’s sake.
RATING: ★★★★★★(6/10 stars)
Final Thoughts: The sheer amount of talent involved in Empire should have yielded a much greater result. From the famed director Lee Daniels, to the skilled writer Danny Strong, and the seasoned superstar cast, this show started off with such promise. The production value is great, the acting is powerful (aside from the underutilized actors), and the music is catchy and very Top 40/radio-playable. The main problems lay with the characters themselves and their lack of development, and the story that is just barely contemporary enough to keep you interested, even when you can guess what is going to happen next. Whether or not the show will share the same longevity as its obvious counterpart/inspiration Nashville, is anybody’s guess. If the story is fixed, and the music stays consistent, it will. Then again, FOX has shows that are doing a lot worse, and out of the bunch this is one of the best. Expect a season 2 renewal announcement soon.