[This is a review of the series premiere of Empire. There will be SPOILERS.]
Series creator and executive producer Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) proves that you don’t need subtlety and nuance to make a compelling hour of television. Like its hip-hop roots, Empire is loud and boisterous, never backing down from the fact that this could be the most entertaining show of 2015.
Daniels, alongside his writing partner Danny Strong (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) have created a colorful group of characters worthy of your attention. Empire never slows down its dramatic pace and holds to its hip-hop and Shakespearean roots well, while simultaneously delivering an engaging story that is still understandable. The characters that inhabit this world could easily be called over-the-top; however, at their core, the motivations that drive their decisions are ones that many of us, no matter what color we are, can relate to.
Empire is the story of a powerful music mogul named Lucious Lyon and his desire to find an heir to his company after recent news that he has ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. That comparison to Shakespeare arises from the story of King Lear; who, before dividing up his kingdom, put his three daughters through a series of tests. Well, in this case, those daughters are replaced by Lyon’s three sons – Hakeem, Jamal, and Andre. Their father literally sits them down and tells them to prove their worth if they want to have a shot at taking the throne.
Each brother has their strengths and weaknesses in terms of having what it takes to become a leader. Like King Lear, Lucious youngest son (Hakeem) is his favorite, though perhaps not the wisest of the three boys. Hakeem screams laziness, but is also a talented individual who could do great things if he just had the proper motivation. Newcomer Bryshere Gray does a solid job of portraying the dysfunctional child, as his mother and father fight for control of his future.
The middle child (Jamal) is perhaps the most interesting of the bunch. Jamal is a talented singer-songwriter, but he struggles to find his father’s love due to him being gay. Even his mother, who accepts him more than his father uses derogatory words like “sissy” and “f****t.” As harsh as those words are, they seem to be coming from a place of affection, not hate. Throughout the episode, we are shown flashbacks of Jamal as a young boy trying on his mother’s shoes, only to have his father embarrassingly drag his son outside and throw him in a garbage can. Again, Daniels does not shy away from the dramatic, but his adverseness to subtlety is also his greatest strength.
Andre (Trai Byers) is the eldest and most publicly respected. He is highly educated, but unlike his two younger siblings, he has no musical talent. His father would like the company to be run by an entertainer and not a business man. Andre may not have the musical chops, but his brilliance is equally matched by his ambition to secure his place at the top. Alongside his lovely wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), the two are poised to become the ultimate powerhouse in this game of musical supremacy.
While Academy-Award nominee Terrence Howard (Iron Man) delivers a solid performance as Lucious, it is the underrated Taraji P. Henson (No Good Deed) that delivers the standout performance as Cookie Lyon. Her presence is captivating every time she’s on screen. She is at times the most compassionate character, as well as the most spiteful. She will be the thorn in Luscious’ side as he looks to take his company to new heights. Also, her ties to the crimes she committed in order to finance the company should make for some entertaining drama in future episodes. At the end of the premiere, Cookie signs a form saying that she will not speak on past transgressions, but surely that’s not the last we’ll hear of it.
Empire is one of those rare shows that can scream in your face and get away with it. Daniels and Strong are credited in this, but without terrific performances from the majority of the ensemble, none of this would work. For now, this series looks like a winner, but can it keep its ferocious pace up before it runs out of steam? Keep watching to see what happens next.
Empire continues with ‘The Outspoken King’ next Wednesday @9pm on Fox. Check out a preview below: