Empire is a hip-hop soap opera, an updated version of King Lear focused on a rap mogul, and a family drama with musical interludes. Taken together, those elements make the Fox series, which debuts Wednesday at 9pm, the most intriguing premiere of the winter television season. Add in a few more promising elements — an exemplary cast that includes Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, and Gabourey Sidibe with future appearances by Courtney Love, Naomi Campbell, and Macy Gray; original music from Timbaland; and the writing duo of Danny Strong and Lee Daniels (who also directed the pilot) — and it seems like everything is in place for a stunning and infectious drama. The question, then, is whether all of these elements can work together, of if Empire will feel overstuffed and implode the way most soapy dramas do.
Luckily, the series starts off with a pilot that’s both sudsy and strong, an episode that sinks its hooks into you almost immediately. The core story is about impressive and intimidating hip-hop mogul Luscious Lyon (what a name!), played by Terrence Howard, who learns that he has a debilitating disease that will cut his life much shorter than he could’ve imagined. With his profitable company — his empire — about to go public, he has to begin to plan for the future by choosing one of his three vastly different sons to take over the company. Adding to the tough decision is Cookie (a tremendous Taraji P. Henson, who goes all-in, fully committing to the soapy dramatics in a way that blows everyone else out of the water), who has returned to the outside after a long stint in jail — the result of taking the fall for Lyon — and immediately begins to complicate things.
Even aside from Cookie, the decision is just about impossible for Lyon. There are pros and cons to each of the three sons. The oldest is Andre (Trai Byers), the most straitlaced of the group, more business-minded than the rest and settled down a white wife (“She’s brilliant,” he says defensively to Cookie. “Pretty white girls always are, even when they ain’t,” she retorts), who nonetheless remains the least likely to take over. He’s the least distinctive of the three, but his personality is necessary to balance out the other, wilder, musically inclined siblings.
Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the middle child and arguably the most talented of the three, but he has the soapiest storyline (and therefore the one with the most potential to go either wonderfully right or horribly wrong): he’s gay, and it causes a huge rift between him and his father — so much so that in a flashback, Lyon, upon noticing a young Jamal dressed in women’s clothes, literally shoves him into a trash can. The youngest son is Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray); he’s also immensely talented (and Lyon’s preferred protégé), but is too distracted by “bitches and booze.”
How does Lyon decide? Well, thanks to Andre’s smarts and Cookie’s revenge-inspired manipulations, it looks like there’s going to be a war between Jamal and Hakeem, who are essentially their parents’ puppets.
It’s not an original story — even one of the sons is quick to point out the King Lear similarities — but that doesn’t really matter. Empire‘s pilot is so infectious, so deliciously dramatic (“I need you to sing like you are going to die tomorrow, like this is the last song you will ever sing,” Lyon instructs one of his musicians), so squirm-inducing and politically incorrect (“I want to show you a faggot really can run this company,” Cookie sneers at Lyon toward the end of the episode) that you can’t look away. It isn’t a perfect pilot by any means — I’m already wary of which way the Jamal storyline is going, especially since his sexuality is being used as a pawn in the Cookie vs. Lyon game.
But all of the pieces are in place for a great show, even though there are maybe too many pieces jam-packed into the first hour of the series (then again, the pilot episode of a drama will always have a lot of ground to cover, to set up the various themes that will hold the series together). Empire has the potential to be the juiciest soap opera of the year, a musical that succeeds where Nashville failed, a thrilling serial that could become as addictive as Scandal. The music is catchy and often purposeful, helping to add depth to the narrative while showcasing the talent of the players (thankfully, the music scenes also don’t go on too long). The acting is all top notch — you could watch the show solely for Taraji P. Henson and not be disappointed — and everyone embraces the format with more sincerity than irony.
It’s impossible to tell whether Empire — or any show — will deliver on a great pilot, but tomorrow night’s episode makes a strong argument to give it a chance. Maybe it will become one of the highlights of the season, or maybe it will fizzle out quickly; either way, the series begins on an exciting note, and promises to reinvigorating an old story — through the eyes of a group that’s still underrepresented on TV.