Is Empire the Musical How to Get Away With Murder?

Two Atlantic writers try to figure out just what kind of show Empire really is.


Joe Reid and Kevin O'Keeffe discuss the second episode of Fox's musical drama series Empire and whether Lee Daniels is trying to throw shade at ABC's Agent Carter.

O'Keeffe: Joe, last week you defended Empire against my insistence that it is not a Good Show. This week, you will have a harder task ahead of you, for I submit that Empire is actually a Bad Show. It is an absolute goddamn blast to watch, but it is still a Bad Show. Most of that is coming from the weird criminal plotline—the one that started with Lucious (Terrence Howard) and his mysterious past, then concluded with him shooting his associate. This week, he had to pretend he has no idea how that associate died to his family and friends, while we also learned that Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) made some sort of deal with a mysterious Agent Carter (the ABC/Marvel shade of it all!) that will now require her to testify in front of a grand jury.
This would be enough plot for an episode of Revenge, but because this is Empire, we also got a lot of moaning about Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) debuting at a nightclub and whether Jamal (Jussie Smollett) would be able to join him. Just like last week, the two boys wound up coming together to produce something even better than before, only for Lucious to still favor Hakeem and Cookie to still yell while wearing an amazing wig. Oh, and another artist on the label got fired because his lyrics supposedly inspired a fan to violence—plus, to paraphrase Cookie, he sucks.
My question to you is this: What on earth is this show?
Reid: Kevin, how Cookie of you to have such a long memory of all the ways in which you have the upper hand on me. Yes, last week I was ... perhaps not bullish on the prospects of this show's better self being able to peek through enough to qualify as good TV, but I was optimistic. This week I won't be making that argument. Not after tonight's episode, wherein, at various points: Lucious fielded a phone call from an angry President Obama because Hakeem went on a phone-video rant about him at a bar; Cookie walked in on a board room meeting and accused Lucious of having "grown a vagina"; Andre's wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) urged him to get his bipolar meds re-filled before donning a bib and dropping to her knees to service him; and, as you mentioned, a shadowy FBI agent named Agent Carter pulled up to Cookie in a town car, opened the door, and said, "Get in."
I'm tempted to say that Lee Daniels has gone full Paperboy with this episode, but I'm actually not sure that things are that uniformly off the grid. In fact, one of Empire's chief problems is that it can't seem to get all its characters on the same page. Terrence Howard is tackling the serious-faced King Lear role while Taraji P. Henson is going for American Horror Story: The Jump Off. I still want to find something worth following in the relationship between brothers Jamal and Hakeem, but it gets pretty hard when the stakes for the Leviticus nightclub show are so wishy-washy. Jamal's going to come out of the closet at the show, only he never has any intention to, so they're going to stage a shadow concert, only again he doesn't, and meanwhile Lucious is so set against Jamal performing, and yet when he does, there's almost no reaction from him. What is important to these people?
Elsewhere, there was Andre and his white-devil wife, rubbing their palms together around the kitchen island, Andre adding items like "figure out how to undermine Hakeem at Leviticus" into his day planner. This episode is an unholy mess, and that's without even getting into Lucious's ALS. And yet, here I sit wishing I could have experienced this episode live on Twitter with my friends, because every other minute my jaw was on the floor for one reason or another. Is this the How to Get Away With Murder of musical soaps?
O'Keeffe: I actually think that comparison is right on the money—and I think that's a bad thing. I've written previously about the choice ABC made when they ordered How to Get Away With Murder and scaled back Scandal's intensity this season. At its core, How to Get Away With Murder is meant to be live-tweeted and OMG'd at until its audience is an exhausted, exhilarated mess. I don't know if Empire should be that kind of show: a lot of its best moments are focused on character, not plot. I remain fascinated by Cookie, despite (or because of?) her being a lunatic, largely thanks to Taraji P. Henson's heroic work. She's just shy of playing Cookie as a drag queen, and that's exactly the note she should be hitting. I'd argue she's the only one who gets what this show is trying to be—I don't even get it.
But let's step back for a second and talk about that "grown a vagina" moment. While Cookie and Lucious are perhaps not the most evolved on gender politics (Lucious was almost cartoonish in his homophobia last episode), I was split on whether or not I liked it as a character beat. Cookie does seem like the type who would value traditional ideas of masculinity—in fact, what prompted her to say it was Lucious prepping for an interview on what he called "white TV" using nonviolent, cowed language. She wants him to be the Lucious she once knew, the man who she loved. She's connecting this new version of him that she doesn't like to him not being a man. I'm pretty sure if she knew he killed Bunkie, she'd like him more. So it all makes sense, and yet I'm concerned as to whether or not the show is endorsing her point of view. It comes back up when Hakeem's love interest only wanted him after he'd proven himself onstage—so it's not just Cookie. I'm reserving judgment, but I'm interested to hear what you think of how the show handles gender, specifically within the hip-hop community.
Speaking of hip-hop, though, I do want to point out an unequivocal bright spot in these first two episodes: the music! Like Nashville, which you compared Empire to last week, this show brought on an expert in Timbaland to advise. I thought Jamal's song this episode in particular was gorgeous; I hope the strength of the performances stays constant even if the quality of the show itself fluctuates as wildly as it seems like it will.
Reid: Gender politics in hip-hop! Always a good time. Part of me feels grateful that the show isn't trying overly hard to tidy up the language and attitudes of characters like Lucious and Cookie, two people  for whom refinement was never really an option. As ham-fisted as it's been presented, Lucious' homophobia tracks, as do Cookie's many contradictions. I like how one minute she can say, "I'll show you a faggot can run this company," and the next minute she's comparing Jamal's boyfriend (in bed!) to "Dora" (of exploring fame). These are inconsistencies of politics, I suppose, but they're all rooted in the show's one triumph of consistency: Cookie's looking out for Cookie.
Lee Daniels certainly looks at the world through his own particular lens, and through that lens, the world is harsh and selfish and does not have time for your feelings. It reminds me a lot of a Ryan Murphy, actually, though with Murphy the meanness of his world can often feel tacked on and unnecessary. Daniels at least presents his harsh worlds as organic. It's still something of a fantasy-land, though, right? Hip-hop may not have the best track record on gender issues and homophobia, but there's no way you can say it's not evolving. It would be nice to see that evolution reflected in Empire a bit more. It would probably end up being an even better fit with all this fabulous, trashy camp.