*This reviewer must confess the initial hesitation we experienced about delving into the “Empire” hype.
The skepticism stemming from the criticism the show received upon its launch. The homosexual theme, Terrance Howard’s thug persona, Gabourey Sidibe’s distracting blonde weave and Taraji P. Henson’s aggressive Cookie character were enough to have many dismissing “Empire” as yet another urban show with stereotypical Black characters who offer nothing to push the dramatic narrative…Oh, how these naysayers were wrong, as millions of viewers proved every week by tuning in to the most engaging new series in a decade.
“Empire” was created by Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels and Emmy Award winner Danny Strong, and executive-produced by Daniels, Strong, Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer, Ilene Chaiken and Francie Calfo. The Season 1 Blu Ray and DVD were released Sept. 15, and Season 2 aired on FOX Sept. 23, with over 22 million LIVE +3 viewers.
Even if you don’t watch the series, no doubt you’ve seen enough TV previews, skimmed a few reviews and been bombarded with live reactions on your social media from friends and family who are enthralled by the power, manipulation and greed of billionaire music mogul Lucious Lyon and the ruthless ambition of his family, wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), and sons Andre Lyon (Trai Byers), Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Y. Gray).
Danny Strong said at a recent “Empire” panel that he wanted to create Black Dynasty, and he and co-creator Daniels certainly delivered with this hip hop drama. Fans of back-stabbing-high-drama will be hooked immediately by the audaciousness of the series, which weaves and spins debauchery until you’re left canceling all plans and settling down for an “Empire” S1 binge. The series doesn’t push the boundaries of the familiar soap opera arc but it’s surprisingly crass, inappropriate and the pace and deliberate choices of the outstanding cast aid in creating the type of suspense that crawls under your skin and keeps you up at night, like a bad habit. Ms. Henson is so conniving and charming that you’ll want to stick around just for her.
“Empire” opens with Lucious Lyon, a former drug dealer turned music CEO, learning he has ALS. Motivated by mortality, and fearing the fate of his company, Lucious sets out to groom one of his three sons to take over the family business – pitting them against each other as they vie for his attention. His ex-wife Cookie, the mother of his sons, strikes a deal with the FEDS who release her from prison early. She returns to Lucious demanding a piece of the family empire, (a company he launched with her $400, 000), and she’s not going away quietly without it. When she meets her youngest son for the first time, she beats him with a broom stick to drive home the point.
“I want to show you a faggot really can run this company,” Cookie asserts to Lucious, making clear her intention to have Jamal, their gay son, take over Lucious’ musical empire, whether either of them likes it or not.
Eldest son Andre has always been devoted to his father and his company, even lying for Lucious to cover up his indiscretions. But Andre is not the musical jewel that his younger two brothers are, and despite his MBA from Stanford and keen business sense, he fears his father prefers to pass on his legacy to Jamal or Hakeem.
Youngest son Hakeem is a hot-headed wild child with mommy issues, (Naomi Campbell is his lover). He hates his mother and is the apple of his father’s eye. He’s not as great an artist as he and his father believe he is – luckily he’s prone to laziness, which allows Jamal’s infectious artistry to shine.
Sweet Jamal has no interest in making music for mass appeal. His father hates him, his doting mother wants him to strive for greater, while’s he’s content living away from the spotlight with his boyfriend and writing songs.
Doesn’t matter if you’re a hip hop music fan, there’s a soapy deliciousness to “Empire,” with an intriguing Shakespearean appeal crafted into the interlocking stories. Henson and Howard have an organic, intense chemistry – a riveting competitiveness that drives this strangely addictive night-time soap.