January 15, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Pilot + 1 Review: “Empire”


EMPIRE:  Wednesday 9PM on FOX

Previously… on EMPIRE:  As he prepares to launch his hip-hop entertainment conglomerate into an even higher financial sphere via an IPO, mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) learns that he has ALS, a disease that will kill him, and he’s forced to decide how to divide his kingdom.  His choices:  brilliantly talented but (to Lucious) unacceptably gay Jamal (Jussie Smollett), spoiled wastrel Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), or respectable Andre (Tray Byers), who doesn’t have an artistic bone in his body.  In case that’s not enough on his mind, Lucious has to cope with the return from jail of his scheming, furious ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who among other things knows that Lucious’s wealth and success all began with money she supplied from the drug trade, and who’s determined to lay her claim to half his business.  Not that Lucious himself is all that far from the streets even now:  he ended the pilot by killing a former associate who was blackmailing him.

Episode 2:  Series co-creator Danny Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaikin (of The L Word) added even more layers to the thick Empire brew with the second episode, which was directed by the other co-creator Lee Daniels.  Andre was revealed to be off his bipolar meds, leaving him a lot less in control than he’d seemed to be in the pilot.  Cookie’s early release from prison, not altogether surprisingly, was the result of a deal with the feds.  A drunk, stoned Hakeem was featured in a viral video that featured him exposing himself in a restaurant and launching into a diatribe against “sellout” President Obama.  (In one of the episode’s wittier touches, we saw Lucious on the phone apologizing to the White House, and being hung up on by the angry President.)  Another artist on the Empire label was attacked in the media when shooters at a shopping mall claimed his songs as their inspiration–although Lucious only fired him when he disrespected Cookie.  And the body of the man Lucious killed surfaced, kicking off a police investigation.

If one thing is clear from Empire‘s first two episodes, it’s that the show will never be boring.  It does run the risk of being repetitious; Cookie has already flared her nostrils and gotten into one character or another’s face quite a bit, although her confrontations with Lucious’s new girlfriend and head of A&R Anika (Grace Gealey) have been delightful.  There’s so much going on that it all pulls focus from what’s supposed to be the main narrative, Lucious and his sons.  Although the show is very sympathetic to Jamal, he’s not a very well-drawn character so far, and it was hard to get involved with the issue of whether he’d perform with Hakeem at the opening of Lucious’s new club, against Lucious’s will (he did), or whether Hakeem would hook up with the beautiful singer rehearsing in the studio next door (he did).

The L Word had its ups and downs, but Chaiken did a solid job over the years of balancing and juggling multiple storylines, so she could be a good choice to instill some discipline into Empire.  (She may have a harder time dealing with broadcast standards and practices–there were moments in this episode that seemed to brush up against the limits of what FOX can allow in primetime, and that challenge isn’t likely to go away.)  All the pieces are there, including an inherently dramatic setting, a dynamic cast, some fine music supervised by Timbaland, and unending conflict, familial and otherwise.

Empire opened to spectacular ratings last week, tied with How To Get Away With Murder as the highest-scoring debut of the season, so barring some cataclysmic collapse, the show will be renewed for next year, giving all concerned plenty of time to get their bearings and figure out how to tell the show’s stories.  The series is a song that success-starved FOX is grateful to hear.


PILOT + 1:  Conventional At Heart, But Frisky As Hell


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."