“Empire” Building

I’ve got a confession to make. I’ve never been the biggest fan of director and producer Lee Daniels. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve never warmed to his work as a film maker. From Shadowboxer to Precious to The Paperboy there’s always been a lurid sensibility that leeches you out of whatever story he’s trying to tell; which distracts from his gift of mise-en-scène, amazing shot compositions, and getting compelling performances out of his actors. That said, whatever faults I may have with his sensibilities as a film maker could be strengths if found in the right context.

And boy howdy is Empire the right context!

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Premiering last night of FOX, Empire combines family drama, hip hop, faux-Shakespearian overtones (more on that in a bit), and the absolute best of ’80s primetime soap operas (Dynasty in particular). And while I do have a few quibbles (the left-field ending), thanks to some sharp writing, directing, and strong acting, this is a spectacular debut episode!

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The plot is relatively straightforward soap opera fodder: Empire Records founder and CEO Luscious Lyon (Terrence Howard) has just been diagnosed with ALS, and like all businessmen with time running out on them he wants to find a way to keep the business in the family. The question then becomes which of his three sons should run the company. There’s the youngest Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), a talented rapper with no business savy. Then there’s level-headed Jamal (Jussie Smollett) the talented singer-songwriter middle child, who is the thorn in his father’s side due to Jamal being gay. Finally, there’s the business savvy eldest child Andre (Trai Byers) who along with his manipulative white wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) is scheming to watch his two brothers fight it out and then swoop in when they both fail. And that’s not counting the others that have vested skin in the game: A&R executive (and Luscious’ current lover) Anika (Grace Gealey), Luscious’ best friend and business parter Vernon (Malik Yoba), and his devoted assistant Becky (Gabourey Sidibe).

If, like Jamal, you ask yourself, “What is this, we King Lear now?” you’re only half right. (Actually it’s more like Akira Kurosawa’s film Ran, which changed the daughters in Lear to sons.) But if anything, it’s more of a direct homage to The Lion In Winter; not only with the plot dynamics and the family surname, but especially with the arrival of Luscious’ estranged wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson); fresh from doing seventeen years in jail for taking the blame for the Lyon’s first family business in drug dealing. Now she’s out, she’s pissed, she wants half of the company that she sacrificed herself for, and she’s backing Jamal against Luscious and Hakeem to get it.

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While the story seems full of clichés, the pilot for Empire embraces the clichés with such gusto that you get sucked in quickly. Daniels and co-creator Danny Strong’s script does what the best pilot episodes do; they set up the world, the main characters, and the main conflicts quickly and efficiently. Even better, it takes the power dynamics of Dynasty and grounds it within the world of hip-hop (thanks to Timbaland’s original songs for the show). Moreover Daniels’ camera work helps to add not only to the ironclad sense of verisimilitude but even the directorial flourishes work (such as the heartbreaking scene of Luscious throwing young Jamal in the trash after catching him in his mother’s shoes).

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And like all other Lee Daniels projects, this cast is sensational with Terrence Howard setting the tone as the smooth if volatile Luscious. That said, the second Taraji P. Henson enters as Cookie, the show takes off. And like Katherine Hepburn did when she played Eleanor in the film version of The Lion In Winter, Ms. Henson dominates every scene she’s in. Cookie is no saint but you can’t help but cheer her on in her quest to get what’s hers. Ms. Henson’s take no prisoners performance, while genuinely fantastic, does throw the dynamic off between the power balance of Cookie and Luscious, and I hope that future episodes will balance that out. Both Mr. Howard and Ms. Henson are dynamic actors and can make that work; it’s up to Mssrs. Daniels and Strong to make sure that it happens.

If Empire can do the impossible and be able to balance its inherent family drama with some of the best aspects of the ’80s primetime soap opera boom, it could be one of the most compelling shows on the air. As it is, it is one of the best pilot episodes I’ve seen in a very long time!

Empire airs at 9pm EST / 8pm CST on FOX.

Photo and Video Credits: FOX Television

Originally Published on 8 January 2015 as part of “The Idiot Box,” my television column for l’étoile

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