January 8, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILIY Series Premiere Review: “Empire”


EMPIRE:  Wednesday 9PM on FOX – Potential DVR Alert

The producer/writer/director Lee Daniels creates films that are compellingly moving (Precious), insane (The Paperboy) or both (The Butler), so it’s a wonder that it’s taken him this long to come to television.  Working alongside his Butler screenwriter Danny Strong, he’s now given us EMPIRE, an old-fashioned family soap set in the hip-hop world that’s all the fun Power hasn’t been so far in its similar realm on Starz.

Like Ghost on Power, Luscious Lyon (Terrence Howard) has risen up from the streets to great wealth.  In Luscious’s case, success came through his Empire record label.  The pilot gives him two existential crises to deal with.  Luscious discovers that he has a fatal illness, albeit one that will keep Howard on the show for quite a while.  This puts him in the position of choosing who among his three sons should inherit his Empire.  (The pilot script explicitly invokes King Lear, in case the analogue was too tough a reach.)  Daniels and Strong have a few new wrinkles on Shakespeare’s tale, however.  The show’s stand-in for Cordelia is Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the most talented and good-hearted of Luscious’s children, but one who’s cruelly and repeatedly rejected by his father because he’s gay.  Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) also has talent, but he’s a self-destructive wastrel.  And Andre (Trai Byers), while eminently respectable (he’s an executive at the company) is a cold-blooded businessman with no art in him at all.

All of this is nothing compared to Luscious’s other problem:  the surprise prison release of Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), his former wife who was there for the founding of Empire and who very literally knows where all the bodies are buried.  Luscious is the focal point of Empire, but Cookie is its center of gravity, a supremely dangerous woman who’s simultaneously an unrestrained fountain of emotion and a shrewd schemer, determined to get everything she considers hers.  Anyone who’s seen Precious knows how drawn Daniels is to maternal monsters (in his earlier Shadowboxer, the mother figure was a ruthless assassin), but with Strong as his co-writer, he’s made Cookie as funny and smart as she is horrifying.  It may be the best part Henson has ever had, and she plays it to the hilt.  Henson and Howard memorably co-starred in Hustle & Flow, and they have a terrific screen rapport together, as even the formidable Luscious knows never to turn his back on his ex-wife..

For all its up-to-the-minute story hooks and milieu (the music for the show is produced by Timbaland),  Empire is a throwback, not great drama in the way we now think TV drama should be.  Its pilot doesn’t have the zing of Shonda Rhimes’ brilliant go-for-broke neo-soap plotting; we’ve seen this kind of family saga many times before, even if it didn’t have a hip-hop beat.  The show has plenty of vitality, though–far more than the sluggish Power–and a cast that’s a pleasure to watch, making it a smooth viewing experience.

Getting Empire is both a coup and a challenge for FOX.  It’s a show that would be more at home on pay-cable, where its characters could speak and act without network censors looking over their shoulders, and where a healthy niche rating would be better than fine.  FOX needs a bigger score, and it has to hope that American Idol still has enough juice to deliver a lead-in, that white audiences will watch a show about African-Americans that lacks the Shondaland logo, and that Daniels doesn’t send the show over the top, a constant issue for his movies.  Still, in Empire the network has an eye-catching new hour, and that at least is a first step.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."