Review: "Empire" is Platinum

Synopsis (Fox): EMPIRE is a sexy and powerful new drama about the head of a music empire whose three sons and ex-wife all battle for his throne.

My opinions: Consider me a fan of Empire. To be honest, I was already sold from the moment I heard it was a show starring Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, and had the soapiness of Dynasty. Just like with Agent Carter, my expectations were exceeded when I finally watched the premiere episode. There’s a reason why it was the highest-rated drama Fox has had in years. 

There are many things to like about the show, starting with the soapiness going all the way down to the fashion. But there’s also a core drama at the heart of the show; the battle over family and business. When you mix the two, things don’t always go right, and people will become at odds with one another, especially if crime is involved.

Such is what happened here, with Cookie Lyon (Henson) finally getting out of jail and demanding that she gets what’s owed to her— half of the company. When Lucious Lyon (Howard) refuses to give her her proper dues (especially since he never visited her himself while she was in prison taking the heat for a crime both of them did), Cookie decides to lay it out front that she had better get what’s owed to her, or else she’ll tell everyone that the seed money for the company came from the drug money that got her sent to prison.

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Cookie not only wants half of the company to feel like she’s been properly repaid; she also wants her middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) to become the head of the company. To go back to the bit about business and family mixing badly, Lucious is dying from ALS, and he’s decided to groom one of his three sons to take over. He definitely doesn’t want Jamal to be the leader because he resents Jamal’s homosexuality (something I’ll get into a bit later in the review).

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He also doesn’t want the oldest son, the one who’s been Ivy League educated and the most groomed one to take on a position of power, Andre (Trai Byers), to be the head either for reasons currently unknown, but it might possibly be because he feels Andre is what some black people call an “Oreo,” especially since he married a white woman. The person Lucious really wants to be in the driver’s seat is the person the least groomed to be in power, his youngest and most impetuous (and spoiled) son, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray).  Hakeem shouldn’t be the head of a company that’s about to go public; even Lucious should be able to look beyond his favoritism to see that.

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The drive for power, though, is what reveals everyone’s latent characteristics and sets them on the race towards what could end up being a meaningless, empty win, since Hakeem and Jamal, who are actually quite close, are already seeing that they’ll become enemies since Hakeem is now Lucious’ musical protege and Jamal, after getting degraded again by Lucious, has now fallen under the managerial wing of Cookie. Andre, meanwhile, is pitting Cookie against Lucious in his own plan for power, with his uncle Vernon (Malik Yoba) brown-nosing to him already as the heir apparent.

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The show is unique for three reasons. One, we’re seeing a show with a basically all-black cast (minus said white woman, Rhonda Lyon [Kaitlin Doubleday]) and the characters aren’t in some ghetto or somehow struggling to get by. In some respect, it’s dealing with the Willow and Jaden Smiths of Hollywood, which is what The Daily Beast’s Judnick Mayard discusses in his own review of the show:

The idea of making it about rich black people is not just a switch of shades on your TV, but to do it in the context of hip-hop and black nouveau riche confronts way more issues. The sons represent the privileged new generation of black kids born into the 1 percent. Of course, there were super rich black kids before, but celebrity black children are a whole new world that we as a society are just getting used to.

Second, the show tackles the issue of homosexuality in the black community. As a black person myself, I can tell you that I and many other members of the African-American community do accept homosexuality. But, where there’s me and others, there’s also those who don’t accept homosexuality or anything else along the Kinsey scale of sexuality, particularly in part to the fear that a Christian God would not accept it (as if we know what God would accept) and partly due to the fear of not living up to the ideal of black manhood.

(As an aside, God is often translated in both masculine and feminine terms, since there’s both man and woman and, I think, since it was thought that God creates and gestates life, like women who are giving birth. Because of this gender fluidity present in descriptions of God, there should be more acceptance of people who fall wherever they do on the Kinsey scale. )

The fact that Lucious can’t accept Jamal’s homosexuality to the point of putting him in a trashcan after Jamal cross-dresses as a child, calls his boyfriends “roommates” (the latest “roommate” being Michael Sanchez [Raphael de la Fuente]) and denying him the simple gratification of a compliment after he helps Hakeem with his track is a representation of the denial a lot of black people exhibit on a daily basis when it comes to their own homosexual relatives or friends. That kind of denial is internalized not as misunderstanding, but as a message that a homosexual person’s life doesn’t matter, and I don’t understand why people don’t get that. Cookie, in her own way, gets that, and thankfully, she’s never denied her son or felt ashamed of him.

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Third, it’s a very PC-unfriendly show for primetime. Why is that good? Well, as much as I like and expect for people to use the correct terms when discussing people’s sexuality, race, etc., we all know that a huge swath of America, including the accepting folks in this swath, do not speak PC all the time. TV, to its credit, has educated people on how to actually address folks without offending them, but there’s something about a level of offense that makes a show worth talking about, for better or for worse.

Honestly, American television has only gotten PC within my lifetime of 26 years. TV was the place for show creators like Norman Lear would push the boundaries and mindsets of its viewers. It appears that Lee Daniels, who directed and co-wrote the pilot, is stepping into Lear’s shoes, particularly with the derogatory language Cookie uses to refer to Jamal (whom she actually accepts, mind you) and her colorful language when addressing her hatred of weaves (which she says leaves women’s hair smelling like “goat ass”).

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I did notice one very interesting fact that I don’t think anyone else has mentioned; there’s something peculiar this show is playing with when it comes to colorism. I don’t think it’s intentional, but the Lucious’ maid is built on the same mold as black, overweight maids of the ’40s and ’50s. And Gabourey Sidibe, who is a major character, is still a character that’s in a serving role as Lucious’ secretary, Becky.

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The only dark-skinned person who isn’t put in a serving role is Malik Yoba, although the jury could be out on his character since he’s also a brown-noser. And, the only dark-skinned character who rebels against being in a serving role, Lucious’ childhood friend Bunkie (Antoine McKay) *SPOILERS* gets killed. Also, Lucious’ new lady, Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey), is even lighter than light-skinned Cookie. Perhaps this trend will play into something that will be revealed in the show about Lucious’ psyche, but I just thought I’d point it out.

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Overall, I’m very excited to see how this show will play out. It’s very well acted, with the stand out performances going to the two leads. It’s also stylish, slick, and certifiably a great guilty pleasure fantasy.

What did you think of the show? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Photo credit:  Chuck Hodes/FOX