There are many things I appreciate in life: books, movies, good food, women, video games, paid vacation. One thing I have yet to come to appreciate though, is melodrama. I say that because it’s entire point is the obvious. Ironically, there is not much depth to the art of melodrama these days. You either get a Scandal or a General Hospital. Much like the form itself, there is very little middle ground for work out there that can capture the small niceties of life and the grandiose fuckery that life often throws at you, from foolish personalities to trite crises.
But then there was Empire. And boy, what a strange and interesting melting pot of stuff hath Lee Daniels borne unto Fox.
One thing to know is that Mr. Daniels is not one for subtlety. As such, I have designated him as brethren, kinfolk if you will, to Tyler Perry. Like mahogany Thors, they wield mighty rhetorical hammers to batter you with a point until you’re reeling in down home idioms, obscenities, and references to “the black community”.
Daniel’s latest then is a product of what must be a lucrative deal with Fox, a need to capitalize off of star power, and a crucible for presenting a melodramatic soundscape for a varying cast acting out increasingly absurd lines. In that, Empire is what you’d find if Power and Glee hooked up over Tinder on a drunken night in Nashville.
Enter silky-permed Lucious (Terrance Howard), the kingpin of a record label poised to go public on the NYSE. From his humble beginnings in
Memphis Philly as an up and coming pimp rapper, Lucious managed to raise three sons in their mother’s absence. Said mother, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), however has just been released from the jammie after a 17 year stint for a drug deal gone wrong. Now divorced, the two battle for the future of Cadillac Empire Records through their sons and potential heirs to the throne: Hakeem, Jamal, and Andre. Fuckery ensues obviously.
Reprising his role as a smooth-talking light-skin, Howard growls and squints his way through most of this premiere. In like fashion, Henson sashays about yelling lines and looking simultaneously beautiful and absurd, depending on which scene you’re referencing (seriously, who was doing wardrobe for this show? There’s legit a scene where she looks like Carmen Sandiego and Olivia Pope had a lovechild.)
The most interesting folks in the show though are actually the Triumvirate of Waffle Colored Negroes™: Andre, Hakeem, and Jamal. Andre is the business savvy and eldest son. Despite having a brick wall for a personality, his cunning plans help set in motion the ensuing conflict between Lucious and Cookie (I’m going to try to use their names as much as possible, because why the hell not). Of course, he’s married to “that white girl” from business school who encourages his manipulation to the throne. Interracial intrigue.
Jamal is the most talented, and the middle son. And he’s gay. Forever shunned by Catdaddy Lucious, Jamal has a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas. Sadly, no amount of his shining will impress his forebear. In fact, Lucious goes out of his way to ignore or brutalize his son into making the right “choice” when it comes to his sexuality. Did I mention he’s gay? Also a sissy. And the f-word. And he’s mad gay. Remember? Daniels goes out of his way to throw this particular point at you, while juxtaposing a reminder that “the black community” is too homophobic to accept a gay man as the head of a record label, let alone a break out artist. As much as these claims can be argued out of context, they already feel painfully overwrought within the show well before it’s summation.
Hakeem is the youngest, and thus the most removed from Cookie. This is important because of a standout scene where I’m sure every black person watching clutched their souls wondering how this boy survived transgressing his mother so. Hakeem * has * talent, but he’s more focused on “clubbing and bitches” to really focus his rapster abilities into SummerJam worthy acclaim. Lucious is blatantly upset by this and goes as far as to TI Hakeem’s Iggy and ghostwrite Hakeem’s raps to get him in the spotlight. Hakeem of course comes up short and must ask for Jamal’s help, to Papa Lightskin’s chagrin.
The tensions and rivalries amongst The Three are the latter part of the premier’s concern, and are sure to make for great moments of foolishness in subsequent episodes. That being said Lucious stirs up some drama of his own that sets many things in motion.
Now, let’s turn to some more formal things and observations.
The show itself mixes musical interludes within standard dramatic scenes, creating a funny dynamic that can be offputting. I get where they’re trying to go, but the setup is often so painfully obvious that I’m not sure why they didn’t just try to make this show a full-blown musical. Having a flashback intercut with a song that functions as both an expository device and an emotional reveal is just tew much for me. Do one thing, and do it well. Don’t just throw everything at me.
But you know, that’s kind of the calling card of the show. It throws things at you and dares you to act like you don’t know what’s going on. In this Daniels and Perry are nearly identical. This is a particular problem however when it comes to dialogue. In spite of this being a premier and there just being a * need * for exposition, Empire’s dialogue is often hammy as Thanksgiving dinner. Cringeworthy moments include Cookie’s emphatic line “I’ll prove to you that a faggot can run this company” during an argument with Lucious.
Like…why? Not only is it an unnecessary line (the idea of homophobia in black urban culture has been drilled into your soul by this point in the show), it also is just a bad one. It uses an epithet without cause, and it’s delivered off beat by Henson. Sadly, this isn’t new to the show by this point. Which is another issue in of itself, given a flashback that implies that Jamal is Cookie’s pride and joy, and she is the only one that wants to protect him.
Why then is the majority of “commentary” on sissies and gays and perjoratives thrown around by Cookie, of all people? The attempt at complexity (see: Henson is a product of her cultural environment, but still loves her son) is choked to death by the lack of nuance with which the lines are written and Henson’s fiery depiction of her character.Now, I will not deny Henson her calling card (see: being loud and proud, go on girl.) So I put the responsibility on the writers here. Cookie can be complicated in her love for her son without seeming like she’s chomping at the bit to say some gay related term every other scene.
All of that aside, some of the show’s best things are its set design. If nothing else, Daniels is very conscious of the impact that set design and ambiance has (see: the many Kehinde Wiley paintings making cameos throughout.) From Deacon SoulGlo’s outfits to his impossibly grand house, to the beautiful loft that Jamal lives in, Daniels wants you to think “ostentatious wealth” when you think Empire. The show’s own title card and logo even play into this: Lucious’s head on the record being reminiscent of the MGM lion, grand and fierce.
All of these things then foster a sense of the stakes that Cookie is at odds with. As a scorned and shunned Employee #1, she has missed out on enjoying the sheer amount of wealth produced. Her wrath then feels that much more justified, considering Lucious’ refusal to properly renumerate her.
On another note, and this may be a reach: maybe Daniels’ referential and gaudy backdrops are a large “fuck you” to the homophobia of his youth (and now). Jamal is clearly the catalyst of the narrative here. Daniels himself is queer, and seems to be infusing autobiographical pathos into Jamal, and Empire. And, Wiley himself is a prominent queer artist. While I’m in no way qualified to speak for anyone who identifies as such, I will posit that Daniels is wholly intentional in all of this. On a surface level, he’s doing what auteurs do: imprinting their narratives with their own experiences. But, I do think on a deeper level that he is subverting the homophobia he experienced and documents, as he documents and recreates it in this fictional realm. Not to get too meta, but there’s levels here that, in a way, redeem the more soapy elements of the rest of the show. I’m interested to see how that evolves in coming episodes.
But I digressed a bit. What do we have then after alladis?
Well, I think Empire is the gaudy, over the top, off-broadway, not-Shondaland musical melodrama that Fox deserves. Which brings us back to the idea of appreciation. While I can’t personally say I like the show on any substantial level, I do appreciate the fact that Shonda’s popularity and chokehold on Thursdays has helped open the door for more non-reality show fiction to break into the room. The quality of said shows are in the eyes of the beholder, and whoever you trust to recommend these things to you.
As such, it’s my duty as a critic to give it a chance, for now. In my heart of hearts then, I think that you too should check it out. For now.
Empire’s premiere is currently on Hulu.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope