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Spring 2015 Review: Empire

12 Jan


There’s a lot of riding on Empire for Fox, which is placing the show in the plum post-American Idol spot and promoting it everywhere, including during their high-rated NFL playoff games. Empire, to its credit, is at least partially up to the task.

Empire is the story of a family entrenched in the big-time music business. Terrence Howard plays patriarch Lucious Lyon. Lyon, in his twenties, was a small-time gangster making music in what spare time he had, hoping to earn enough from his criminal activities to release an album and go legit. He did eventually, but the price is paid by his wife, Cookie, who takes the hit for him, serving almost 20 years in prison for dealing drugs while Lucious’s music career becomes everything they thought it could be and more. He rises in that time from mere artist to label founder and mogul. While he spends his days in the world of boardrooms and stock prices now, we learn, over the course of the episode that the gangster still lies deep inside.

A couple of major premise events occur within the pilot of Empire to really get the story moving. First, Cookie gets out of prison after 17 years and wants what’s hers. While she was locked up, Lucious divorced and forgot about her, and her sons stopped visiting. She wants remuneration for the 17 years she spent locked up while the beneficiaries of her sacrifice racked up millions and millions and she wants a piece of the action at the label. Around the same time, after Lucious has already decided to take the company public, he finds out he has ALS, and his days are numbered – the doctor gives him three years, maybe more, maybe less.

Lucious thus decides he must anoint one of his sons as his sole successor, fueling competition among his children. His oldest, Andre, is an executive for Empire. He seems to be the most qualified to succeed business-wise, but Lucious believes the post should go to a musician. Middle son Jamal and youngest Hakim both qualify, but Jamal, a piano-playing R&B type, is gay, which rules him out in his homophobic father’s eyes. Hakeem, a rapper, is clearly his dad’s favorite, but equally clearly the least able, at present, to take over. He’s irresponsible, immature, and doesn’t take his craft particularly seriously, coming in to record hungover.

Empire is part family power struggle, part music performance show. There are three and four minute music video-esque concert scenes that are reminiscent of fellow music-centric show Nashville. They fit within context, taking place at either a recording studio or a venue, but still, they feel outside of the show, and they took me out of the action for longer than they should have.

Empire isn’t quite engrossing but it sets up enough nice foundational building blocks to construct a decent show on top of. The family power struggle story is a classic one (one of the sons smartly namechecks King Lear when his father tells him only one of them can have the company) but the music world is a fairly fresh, relevant, and interesting choice of setting (Nashville, again, is the closest recent subject matter overlap, but not certainly more than different enough). The five primary family members on whom the first episode focuses are all solid bases for potentially complex characters; the challenge will be for the show to flesh them out as it goes further.

It doesn’t have the transcendent feeling of a great pilot (most recent example: Transparent) but it’s competent and has potential, which is quite promising by network standards.

Will I watch it again? Yes. I appreciate a network actually trying to make a really good, big show, even if it’s not there yet. It might get boring and repetitive fairly quickly, like Nashville did.  In fact, I’d say the odds on me making it through the first season aren’t very high. But I’ll try another episode. I owe a network series that tries at least that.