The Messy, Beautiful, Unique Empire

Two Atlantic staffers evaluate the promise and potential pitfalls telegraphed in the Fox musical drama's premiere.

Joe Reid and Kevin O'Keeffe discuss the pilot episode of Fox's new musical drama series Empire and what it promises for the rest of the series.

O'Keeffe: There's a scene in the pilot episode of Empire where Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) faces off against her music mogul husband Lucious (Terrence Howard) over managing their middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollet). Cookie, recently released from prison and decked out in a gorgeous fur coat, accompanies her own ultimatum by playing a lick on the piano: Unless she controls Jamal's career, she's ready to take the entire company down. The diegetic score amps up the drama to just shy of campy. Finally, Lucious relents, shouting as Cookie exits that he didn't even want Jamal. "I know," she shoots back, deliciously undercutting his attempt to declare victory.
Empire is a fascinating family saga, but that isn't the only show it's interested in being. It also wants to be about the past, about how Lucious and Cookie's company came to be. It wants to be about a man deals with a terminal illness. It wants to be about how that man has killed before—and will kill again. It wants to tackle all these things at once, and it is an utter mess. Joe, I know we disagree on the scope of the mess, but you would agree that there are parts that are indeed disastrous, yes?
Reid: Definitely. I think you hit on a big part of the problem for Empire, which is that it has decided that it's going to be Important Television, and thus it's setting out to do what Important Television does. Which, in the 2010s means flashbacks and a vast canvass of characters and, of course, Difficult Men. When we get to the end of the episode and see Lucious put a bullet into an associate and (former, I suppose) friend in order to preserve his business, it's not merely the act of a man whose three-year death sentence (he has ALS) has given him a brand new lease on could-give-a-damn. It's also an act of throwing in with every other prestige drama of the last fifteen years, in love as they've all been with murderous men.
I'm not sure if I'd say "disastrous," though, if only because the line between prestige overreach and compulsive watchability isn't so thick, and it might end up being solved by a few slight shifts. Judging Empire as an heir to a Breaking Bad or even a Boardwalk Empire, despite its oversized ambitions, does the show no favors. But if you look at Empire as a bolder, juicier Nashville? That may be exactly what I'm looking for.
Already, the show is delivering for me on a few fronts. Obviously, Taraji P. Henson was going to be a slam dunk from the moment she and her fur coat from the Kimberly Denise Jones collection strutted across the screen. She somehow manages to be too much and just enough at the same time, giving off an air of camp while still maintaining an eye of the tiger when it comes to Cookie's place in the narrative. Yet that narrative isn't without its hiccups, either. The King Lear allegory is obvious enough that one character outright says it in the early going: Lucious is our dying king, and his three sons—corporate Andre, heedless Hakeem, and gay Jamal—will end up warring over the keys to the kingdom, which in this case is his hip-hop empire.
It's the nature of this upcoming war that has me a bit puzzled. Lucious and Cookie each take one favored son (Hakeem and Jamal, respectively) under their wing and immediately begin to set them against each other, with scheming Andre only too happy to wait them out. Multiple references are made to Hakeem and Jamal being set up to "kill" each other, which seems like colorful language, but between the Shakespeare and the hairpin plot turn that makes a murderer out of Lucious, you get the feeling it's going to get pretty literal. And unless the show gets a tighter grip on tone, I can't see how fratricide won't throw this whole show over the side of a cliff. But am I getting too far ahead of myself?
O'Keeffe: I almost don't think you are. Because this is Lee Daniels we're dealing with as the writer/creator/director here. Lee "The Paperboy" Daniels. Lee "Lee Daniels' The Butler Featuring Oprah Winfrey Calling Yaya DaCosta a Low-Class, Trifling Bitch" Daniels. This man is unafraid to take everything to its extreme, which I appreciate! But that's why I use the word "disaster"—he's willing to create a catastrophe if he thinks he can find something unique and beautiful in it. I really appreciate that, but it also worries me in a TV format, especially since I have to imagine the show is expensive.
If it gets some time to find that beauty, though, it will probably find it in Henson. She's spectacular. She's everything Terrence Howard isn't, really: invested, fun, powerful, and she does it all despite what could be a hackneyed retribution arc post-incarceration. Howard's Lucious has all the juicy hooks—your comparison to cable antiheroes is an apt one—but is basically just turning in yet another Terrence Howard performance. I find Henson much more compelling, and I can't wait to see what else she draws out of Cookie.
The other thing I really appreciate is how well the show portrays a modern hip-hop company. Portraying the music industry can be a trap for TV shows and movies, but like Gina Prince-Blythewood's Beyond the Lights (well, the first half, at least), everything feels right. The music reflects where the hip-hop world is, while Hakeem and Jamal could represent the two sides of Drake: a smoother R&B sound and a harder rap flow. Now, there are details that I'm sure any hip-hop mogul could debunk (cue a "What Empire Gets Wrong About the Modern Music Business" essay), but I'm talking more about feeling. And, admittedly, feeling can be difficult to keep consistent, especially for an unabashed artist like Daniels. I'm not sure how long I can watch a mess hoping it finds its footing. How much time will you give Empire?
Reid: There are a lot of small moments in this first episode that make me think Empire could hook me even with shaky storytelling. I like the Jamal character a lot; I like that they let him feel like a full character, with complicated relationships with his mom, dad, and at least one brother. The show doesn't feel like it's trying too hard to prove something with its gay character, and that moment where his boyfriend and Gabby Sidibe (as their friend and Lucious's assistant) just kind of gawk at and gossip about Cookie felt real and funny. I also liked the dangerous levels of side-eye happening whenever Cookie and Malik Yoba's Vernon were in the same room together. And I liked that little throwaway line where Cookie is trying to say that James Brown is her uncle.
A few of these moments go a long way for me. They'll keep me around and entertained while I wait and hope the central narrative figures out the show it wants to be.