By Melissa Crawley
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If you’re not watching “Empire” by now, what are you waiting for? It’s an entertaining nighttime soap opera with all that’s great about the genre: power, murder, ambition, intrigue, good guys, bad guys, wealth and attitude. The Empire of the title is the hip hop record label run by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a small-time drug dealer turned recording artist who made it from the streets to the big time thanks to talent and his wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). Cookie is a hitmaker, but her luck runs out. A drug deal goes south, and sacrificing herself for her husband, she spends 17 years in jail. The action picks up as Cookie is released from prison, Empire, the company that they started together all those years ago is about to go public and Lucious is diagnosed with ALS. In the first episode he tells his three sons, Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) that whoever impresses him the most will become the head of the label. Let the backstabbing begin.
One of the show’s strengths is that it wastes no time drawing you into the action. Lucious’ decision puts all his wealth and power up for grabs. What the characters will do to get it and what Lucious will or will not do to steer the outcome forms one part of the story. The other and perhaps more interesting part of the story is how the relationships will evolve within this fractured family.
Lucious’ hardness and cruelty is never too far from the surface, a trait Howard skillfully portrays without making the character completely unlikable. Howard knows how to move Lucious from tenderness to viciousness and back again so smoothly that the transitions are barely noticeable. Thanks to Howard’s talent, a scene where Lucious murders his lifelong friend is as emotionally powerful as a scene where his unsteady hand prevents him from shaving, revealing both his physical weakness from his disease and foreshadowing his loss of control. It’s hard to choose where Howard excels the most, as every scene he’s in keeps your attention. But if I had to, it would be a tie between his interactions with Jamal, the gay son who he can’t accept and Cookie, the wife who he abandoned to face her jail sentence alone.
The show doesn’t shy away from Lucious’ harsh judgment of Jamal’s homosexuality in either the present or the past. One flashback scene shows Lucious’ reaction to Jamal’s expression of his sexuality as a young child. It’s so cruel it’s difficult to watch. Their relationship as adults is complex, painful and authentic. The relationship between Lucious and Cookie is similarly complicated. They are playful, nostalgic, angry and sad with each other, sometimes all in one episode. Cookie is an over the top character (and the most fun to watch) but Henson balances out those moments with flashes of vulnerability that reveal all this woman has lost. She’s a standout, which is no small feat when your co-star is as good as Howard.
“Empire” is on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST on Fox.
Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.
Stay Tuned: You should be watching ‘Empire’
By Melissa Crawley