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There are a lot of moving parts — and not all of them work — jammed into the pilot of Fox’s vibrant and entertaining Empire, which premieres on Wednesday and qualifies as one of 2015’s most eagerly anticipated new shows, at least early on.
That Empire does much more right than it does wrong is encouraging — but it’s always hard to judge the actual quality of a series, or even what that series will eventually be, by just one episode (magnify that sentiment when the episode is a pilot, which by nature is messy, overly ambitious and obvious).
But there’s a lot to like in Empire, particularly the ambitious scope of the story that creator Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) and co-creator/writer Danny Strong (The Butler, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1) have mapped out. The music, which is absolutely essential to the series and might have been its make-or-break element, is expertly overseen by Timbaland, who acts as both musical director and songwriter.
Part of why Empire was always an early leader in 2015 mid-season buzz is that there’s so much talent attached to it — from Daniels, Strong and Timbaland to its main stars, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Toss in Daniels’ statements about wanting to make a huge soap opera — and calling this his “black Dynasty” — and expectations were always going to be high.
The series is set in the music industry and opens when the over-the-top Lucious Lyon (Howard) is already at the top of his game as a mogul, running Empire Records and about to take the business to the next level.
Hiding an illness that sets the clock running (both on Lucious and on how to stretch out the storytelling in Empire), he realizes he needs to pick one of his three sons to run the business, which is complicated by the untimely release of their mother, Cookie (Henson), from prison. She comes back looking for her share after doing 17 years for a crime that provided the initial seed money to start Empire Records.
Whatever stumbling blocks came up in the writing of the pilot likely were more a byproduct of the show being on network television than anything else, since Strong’s work, particularly Game Change, has been, well, strong. And almost simultaneously in Empire, the character development and the weaving of the bigger issues at hand into the narrative overcome the caveats.
For example, Daniels has imagined a world where Lucious, a thug turned musical success story (and then burgeoning mogul) can’t shake his flaws, no matter how much money he makes or how much sophistication he attempts. Lucious’ three sons, meanwhile, face a mixture of difficult choices: Andre (Trai Byers), the Ivy League-educated eldest whose wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), is white, has all the business acumen needed to take over the company — he’s the obvious choice — but never inherited any musical skills. Lucious believes the head of Empire should be an artist, not a businessman.
Middle child Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is arguably the most talented musically, but he’s also gay — something Lucious has never been able to accept. Daniels, who is openly gay, uses Jamal in the pilot to great effect; his story is central to making Empire intriguing. The flashback scene of Lucious, enraged by his son’s effeminate nature, stuffing him into a garbage can while Cookie kicks and lashes out at Lucious for being cruel, is taken from Daniels’ own life. The autobiographical element partly may explain why Jamal’s character seems the most fully observed in the pilot.
Lucious’ inability to accept Jamal — and have him as the face of the company — means that third son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), the brash, uncontrollable young rapper who unsurprisingly reminds Lucious of himself, looks to be the heir. A battle for control is put in motion when Andre (Macbeth alert), via his wife, hatches a plan for Cookie to seek control of Jamal’s career. Say what you want about the connection, but it’s a great way to illustrate the bigger identity issues that Daniels is getting at — the eldest son who comes off as “not black enough,” the middle son who’s gay and the youngest kid, who is most in tune with what everybody wants to hear, and who may be less like his father than Lucious thinks.
Empire is a big swing for Fox, and there are a number of question marks and stumbling blocks within it, but ultimately its entertainment level transcends the worries. Credit Timbaland’s musical guidance for making the core business in Empire both believable and full of catchy music. It’s clear Daniels (and Fox) wanted a big nighttime soap opera — historically a popular genre on broadcast television — so we’ll see if Empire can find its rhythm and hook viewers.
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