At a glance, the new Fox series Empire looks like a serialized version of Craig Brewer's 2005 movie, Hustle and Flow. It stars a top-of-her-game Taraji P. Henson opposite Terrence Howard as matriarch and patriarch of a hip-hop dynasty. The show openswith Cookie Lyon (Henson) leaving jail after a 17-year drug sentence and returning to claim what is rightfully hers: the successful music label run by ex-husband Lucious Lyon (Howard). Cookie is a catchphrase generator who dresses exclusively in bodycon dresses, and Lucious knows how to stare coldly across a room whilst looking deeply conflicted. Their chemistry, established in Hustle and Flow, is as potent as ever.
Apart from its excellent cast, Empire has more in common with English historical dramas than it does with Brewer's film. Lucious, we learn, suffers from Lou Gehrig's Disease and must leave Empire Records to one of his three talented sons: Andre (Trai Byers), the eldest, is all business; Jamal (Jussie Smollett) the middle child, is a soft-hearted composer in the mold of Frank Ocean; and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is a young rapper who is all about the booze and bitches.
King Lear is an obvious influence, though the series is actually more analogous to James Goldman's 1966 play about the legacy of King Henry II, The Lion in Winter. When the play went silver screen in 1968, Katharine Hepburn starred as the fierce Queen Eleanor — long imprisoned by her husband, protective of her brood, scheming for power and revenge. Empire is a vehicle for Henson, who can easily drive the show with a twitch of one of her perfectly manicured eyebrows. Cookie is proudly maternal and truly hot — a victim of love but not its fool. She can also drop hilarious lines like, "You want Cookie's nookie, ditch the bitch."
Empire is a formulaic musical drama, and the formula works. Episodes are peppered with topical hits (courtesy of Timbaland) and usually conclude in a satisfying party/performance. The show supposedly takes place in New York City, but you wouldn't know it because there are about three exterior shots of buildings in the whole series. This empire is built with bedrooms, board rooms, and recording studios.
There is a pleasant unreality to Empire, founded in its weird locationless-ness and spontaneous song, and reinforced by the total unsubtlety of the writing. We learn early on that Jamal is gay and closeted. Then we learn it again and again. Characters speak to each other as if they had recently lost their memory and are trying to establish a basic grip on the facts. When Andre, who is bipolar, starts to drink in the eighth episode, his wife tells him, "Andre, your meds won't work if you drink." Lucious, in an otherwise uneventful moment, tells everyone for the nth time, "You don't get it! I'm about to be dead soon!" A note to any Empire producers concerned about clarity: We do get it.
The character development on Empire is also so obvious as to be totally inscrutable. Henson, Howard, and everyone else seem to act from behind their roles, rather than inside them, communicating with pure charisma. It is a shame, and it unfortunately begs the question — if this were a family drama about white people, would the script be more subtle, the characters less-frequently reduced to one-line summaries?
Empire is only on its eighth episode, but each contains enough high drama for a whole season of another show. It will be interesting to see how long it can last, with the ticking time bomb of Lucious' illness and the steady introduction of new (and uniquely scheming!) characters. So far, we've seen the family double-cross each other in the interest of power, but, on the whole, their hearts are still intact. When Cookie tells Lucious she can make him immortal if he'll just split up with "Fake-ass Halle Berry," it somehow seems reasonable. But if the show doubles down on itself and starts assigning unreasonable motivations to unreasonable characters, it will lose its mojo. And we'll move on to the next sumptuous musical drama. Which won't have Cookie, and that will be a shame.