EMPIRE Premiere Debriefing: This is what would happen if Shakespeare wrote television dramas

Empire

In one of the most highly anticipated premieres of the season, Empire finally debuted tonight on FOX, and didn’t waste any time jumping right into its world of corporate intrigue, backstabbing and family drama.

It’s not the first show about a music empire on television, but it may just have the most riding on it, given the caliber of its stars (Terence Howard and Taraji P. Henson for starters). The real question is, will it live up to the hype?

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Entertainment mogul Lucius Lyon (Howard) is at a crossroads in his life: his hugely successful company is about to go public, potentially making him richer than his wildest dreams, but a health scare is making him consider the future of his company. Namely, who should succeed him when he eventually has to step down. In a totally Shakespearean twist, he decides to pit his three sons against each other to essentially compete for the top dog role — because there can be only one King. It’s not only a testament to how spoiled and privileged his coddled children are, but more importantly to the ruthlessness that has gotten him to this position in life.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Like any good drama, those three sons are vastly different individuals. Eldest Andre (Trai Byers) seems, on paper, to be the most viable candidate: he’s the suit-clad, Ivy League-educated businessman who feels like he’s given everything to the company. Yet Lucious has no interest in him, because he isn’t an artist like his brothers (or father), thus can’t really understand the music industry. Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the most outwardly sensitive, and is more hipster than hip-hop. Apparently a brilliant musician in his own right, he’d rather play on his own in no-name clubs than hustle a new album under the big lights. He’s also openly gay and living with his boyfriend, much to his father’s consternation. (“Homophobia in the Black community” is uttered more than once in the hour as an excuse for his problems.) Youngest Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is billed as the next big thing in rap, but is lazy and seemingly lacking real soul in his music. Despite disappointing him, he’s clearly his father’s favorite, and might be the front leader in this dastardly little tournament.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

As if that weren’t enough to upset the family dynamics, there’s another hat thrown into the ring when the boys’ mother, and Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Henson) is unexpectedly released from prison after seventeen years. She’s determined to reconnect with her kids, and maybe more pressingly, to get what she feels she’s owed. It turns out she was the initial investor in Empire Entertainment before she went to the big house, and there’s more than one coy insinuation that the reason she went to prison was to cover for Lucious. He was a drug dealer and sometime rapper who was on the brink of hitting it big when Cookie went to jail, and she implored him to make sure he stuck with his music, because he was onto something special. She might have been the brains behind the entire operation, and wants half the company as compensation for giving up her life for nearly two decades.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Obviously, a man like Lucious doesn’t become the tycoon he is by being a benevolent partner, and he immediately refuses to meet Cookie’s demands. Interestingly, instead of playing on the warring exes trope, Lucious is happy to see Cookie freed, and does agree that the least he can do for her help is to take care of her — by giving her a yearly “salary” of hush money. It’s not enough for Cookie, and she vows to find a way to get what is hers. Eventually, she gets the idea that Jamal is her meal ticket: he’s reluctant to find the spotlight, but she believes his R&B sound could burn the charts, if only he’d get into a studio. She wants to take over as his manager from Lucious, which he initially rebuffs, but then agrees to in exchange for her signing a gag order preventing her from ever publicly acknowledging she was the initial investor in Empire. Besides, he still feels like Hakeem is the real superstar of the family, so he wants to keep him in his pocket instead. Jamal and Hakeem are adorably close, and Jamal is even the one to help Hakeem out of his musical rut by collaborating on a track together, but the announcement that both boys are going to be releasing albums in the new year is enough to show the audience that there’s a big ol’ wedge about to be driven between them.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

As a pilot, there was a whole lot going on in this episode, and more than a little exposition sprinkled throughout. There was obviously some heavy-handed dialogue, as is the norm for first episodes — from everything surrounding Jamal’s sexuality, to Andre’s  yuppieness, to Lucious’ gangster past, there’s no doubt the writers clocked us over the head with the broad themes they’re planning this season. The intercutting of flashbacks to the Lyons’ pre-Empire life served to highlight how deeply ingrained the family dynamics are, even all these years later. Lucious might be composed now, but he’s still the guy who beat Jamal as a child when he walked out in his mother’s heels, or told him not to cry when his mom went to prison. Or the guy who accompanied his wife on drug deals like they were going to he corner store. And, according to friend Bunkie (Antoine McKay), is also the guy who killed four rival drug dealers before cleaning up. (I have to say, while I appreciated the flashbacks at first, the repeated use of the same scenes later in the episode felt a little more like filler to me.)

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

The family dynamics are what really called to me in this pilot. Yes, everyone is a little “stock” at the outset: Lucious is shrewd, Cookie is sassy, Andre is uptight, Jamal is sensitive, and Hakeem is a brat. Yet, especially with the plot device of Lucious’ competition, I think there’s potential to really unpack those relationships, and we’ve seen it already. Andre is relegated to the background of his family’s life, but his ambitious wife hypothesizes that with the two favored brothers duking it out, he might end up being the last man standing for the company after all. Jamal and Hakeem made it seem like they didn’t really care about the business and just wanted to live their lives, scoffing at their parents’ absurdity, but the announcement that they were both dropping records imminently made it seem like they might not be so chill with each other as they thought. Moreover, they’ve all got such different relationships with their parents: Jamal is close with Cookie, but a failure to Lucious, while Hakeem is angry at the mother he never really knew and clearly indulged by his tough father. Meanwhile, Andre doesn’t seem to factor with either of his parents, and I’m curious if that’s for lack of time in a jam-packed episode, or a deliberate choice to demonstrate that he’s been neglected by everyone.

So far, I’m very interested not only in the Lyons family in all their convoluted, dysfunctional glory, but in the building of their empire as well. We see flashes of it throughout: Lucious tapping into one of his artists’ personal trauma to pull out a compelling performance in the recording booth, or recognizing the potential in his kids (while not necessarily nurturing it). We learn that he was a talented rapper himself before growing his business into a successful record label and marketing machine, so he’s obviously got a personal investment in the empire — which again is apparently what puts him at odds with Andre, who he feels can’t understand the business because he’s never been on the talent end of it.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Towards the end of the episode, the show drops a bomb: Lucious’ scare isn’t temporary, and he’s diagnosed with ALS, and given three years to live. Lest you think this would make him see the light and become magnanimous in the little time he has left, instead one of the final scenes is Lucious callously shooting Bunkie in the head for daring to cross him. It’s shocking, but shines a light on the Lucious pre-fame that Bunkie warned us about. If Lucious has nothing left to lose, there’s no telling what other dirty deeds he might get into, and I take it that’s what will set up the rest of the series.

I’m definitely going to be tuning in in the next few weeks to see if this Empire crumbles, and who’s left standing when the dust clears. Howard and Henson in particular play off each other wonderfully, and I want to see more of them out-quipping one another. Add in all the great music we’re privy to since this is set, you know, in the music industry, and I think this has the potential to be a really fun ride.

What did you think of Empire? Are you buying this track, or is it straight to the bargain bin?

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

2 Responses to EMPIRE Premiere Debriefing: This is what would happen if Shakespeare wrote television dramas

  1. […] the moment terminally-ill Lucious Lyon declared to his sons that only one of them would be chosen as his successor, it was obvious that Andre, Jamal and Hakeem would be pitted against each other, one way or […]

  2. […] have to admit, I’ve loved these last two episodes. Like I said earlier this year when the pilot aired, I love how unabashedly the show embraces its dramatic format. It’s like Hamlet with a sick […]

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