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Review: A Swaggering Empire Remixes the Primetime Soap

3 minute read

Primetime TV has had many variations on the genre, widely defined, of soap opera: oil-biz operas, law operas, cop operas, glee-club operas. With Fox’s Empire (debuting Jan. 7), from director Lee Daniels, it now has a hip-hopera. And while the busy first hour scarcely has time to set a premise and lay down a beat, it promises all the glitter and heightened emotion its genre mashup implies, if it can keep its pathos from sliding into parody.

Empire‘s base story is older than soaps: rapper-turned-recording mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is diagnosed with ALS, forcing him to consider which of his three sons will inherit his business, Empire Entertainment. “We King Lear now?” asks middle child Jamal (Jussie Smollett), proving that he has an ear for literary references as well as music, but Lucious has always dismissed his most artistically gifted son because Jamal is gay. His eye is on his youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), whom Lucious is so determined to see as a young version of himself that he’s blind to his limitations. There’s also the eldest, André (Trai Byers), who has a mind for business but, Lucious fears, lacks the soul for this business.

Into this charged setup walks–nay, swaggers, nay, steamrolls–Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), fresh out of jail for a crime that launched Lucious’ career 17 years ago and demanding a piece of the company. Lucious doesn’t have a piece to give–his stake has been diluted and the company is about to go public. So instead she takes management of Jamal, promising to “show you a faggot really can run this company.” With that, the exes begin to circle each other, Lyon vs. lioness, and Henson signals with immediate fierceness that this Cookie will not so easily crumble.

Maybe the best example of Empire‘s dual missions of hip-hop authenticity and primetime-serial melodrama is the music itself. The original songs performed by characters, written by top producer Timbaland, are good, but more important, they’re convincing–they’re credible examples of commercial genres from R&B ballads to rap to singer-songwriter soul, which goes a long way toward Empire‘s world-building. The incidental score, on the other hand, is so luridly dramatic it sounds like it was lifted from an ’80s soap; I half expect the ghost of Larry Hagman to walk on-screen.

No doubt Daniels and writer Danny Strong, who collaborated on The Butler, want us to know they’re serving up high-proof melodrama. But the soundtrack doesn’t need to triple-underline that when it’s obvious enough from performances like Henson’s gleeful star turn–and sometimes it undercuts them, making Howard’s low-key calculation and hubris sometimes play like ’30s-movie-matinée villainy.

Set in the business of excess, Empire flirts with being too much–we haven’t even gotten to the histrionic flashbacks, the blackmail or the gunshots. But the first hour can be most interesting when it holds back, especially with the relationships among the three brothers, who rather than being pulled into their parents’ acrimony have a kind of survivors’ bond.

Their story gives ballast to the High-Dynasty conflict between Cookie and Lucious, and that may help the show strike a better balance than its country cousin Nashville, which has lurched from earnest to outlandish. Empire has an entertaining future ahead, if it can hold its balance atop Cookie’s high heels, simultaneously keeping it real and keeping it just unreal enough.

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