There’s been such a lot of hype about Empire, so much so that I felt I had to give it at least a shot – even if the premise of a soap opera centred on a hip hop music and entertainment business could hardly on the face of it have appealed to me less.
Sometimes the hype can be deceptive, and sometimes it can be spot on. And with Empire, it’s unequivocally the latter. It’s a slick, glossy and high-energy modern reboot of 80s big glam soaps like Dallas and Dynasty – and just like those shows it takes Shakespearian tragedy as its guiding light and inspiration as it sets up the battle for succession of a multi-million dollar family business. One character immediately hits the nail on the head by summarising the situation by saying “What is this? We King Lear now?” in a scene within the first five minutes, just one example of razor-sharp writing that expects the viewer to keep up and pay attention and know what it’s talking about at all times.
The basic starting premise is that the head of Empire Entertainment, hip hop mogul Lucious Lyons (Iron Man’s Terrence Howard), announces that he’s going to start grooming one of his three sons to take over as CEO. What he’s not telling them is that the timeline is far more accelerated than anyone suspects, as Lucious has been diagnosed with ALS giving him a three-year life expectancy.
The battle for who will succeed him is wide-open, because none of his prospective heirs are the full package: Andre (Trai Byers) has the business brain but no musical talent and also suffers from bi-polar disorder; middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the true creative singer/songwriter in the family but is disinterested in the corporate side, and more crucially as far as Lucious is concerned is ruled out of succession by being gay; while youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y Gray) has some genuine rapping skills but is also a spoilt playboy more keen on parties, booze and fame than knuckling down to work.
Into this situation explodes Lucious’ first wife Cookie, played by Person of Interest star Taraji P Henson who in many ways plays the same inciting role as Joan Collins did as Alexis Carrington in Dynasty. There’s no effort to be subtle with this character and her larger-than-life, shoot first and then shoot twice more for good measure approach is a large part of what gives Empire its high octane injection of energy. She says exactly what she thinks and not only doesn’t care how much it offends people, but positively takes great delight in stirring up any situation whenever she gets the chance.
If Cookie is the equivalent of Alexis then the three sons are the Ewing brothers – Andre is the scheming JR, Jamal the too-nice Bobby, while Hakeem – well, if anything he’s a male version of Dallas’ Lucy. Around them are various wives, girlfriends and in Jamal’s case boyfriend, together with various family retainers and business associates that includes Precious star Gabourey Sidibe as Lucious’ executive assistant. Even at this early stage, all of the characters feel impressively well-rounded with none of them being either all good or all bad by any stretch of the imagination – not even Lucious himself, who despite being the star of the show and a successful businessman apparently beyond reproach is also shown to have founded his empire on drug money for which Cookie took the fall and was sent to jail for 17 years. In flashback Lucious is also seen to have treated a young Jamal with little short of child abuse, while the final scene shows him committing an act that would previously have been the preserve of anti-heros on prestige cable dramas like The Sopranos.
And then there’s the music. Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (an actor previously best known for a recurring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer) wisely opted to hand over the role of music supervisor to someone who actually knows a thing or two about the current hip hop scene and duly selected Timbaland to oversee that side, and it’s a masterstroke. Normally I would have said that hip hop and rap are emphatically not my sort of thing, but I really liked the songs featured in the pilot especially those performed on-screen by Smollett.
It’s opened my eyes (or perhaps I should say ears) to a whole new world or music – and the same goes for the show as a whole. Despite its traditional soap opera and Shakespearian roots this is a resolutely inventive and innovative modern show which puts on screen a section of African-American lifestyle rarely if ever shown in mainstream television in the US let alone the UK. It’s striking that there is only one notable regular character in the show played by a Caucasian actor, and it makes you realise how you’ve never, ever seen a network trust an expensive drama TV series to an exclusively non-white cast before now; and yet it’s the uniformly strong cast that is emphatically Empire’s trump card.
Most of all, the show doesn’t pull its punches when it comes to dealing with some of the big issues confronting the African-American community, from the prevalent homophobia and sexism to the glamorisation of gang violence and drugs. These are tackled head on with the sort of forthrightness that leaves nice well-meaning white liberalistas gasping for breath with the rawness and relevancy of it all. The end result is full of energy with a vibrancy that is rare to see from any US network show these days, and small wonder that the ratings went up from 14 million for the premiere on Fox to a whopping 23.12 million for the season finale 12 episodes later.
That’s one a heck of a hit by anyone’s standards, and even more so for something that must surely have been expected to be at best a niche show for a very particular demographic. This thing is, this show really does travel and should appeal to a far wider audience – even to old fogeys like me. For once, we have a break-out hit that entirely deserves the acclamation.
Empire continues on E4 on Tuesdays at 9pm