‘Empire’ Pilot Recap: “Show Me Your Soul in This Music”

Fox premiered the new drama series ‘Empire’ on Wednesday night this week. With a powerhouse cast and a flashy music industry setting, does the show have any real substance to go with its abundance of hype?

The series was created by Lee Daniels, director of ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler‘ and ‘Lee Daniels’ Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire‘. Terrence Howard stars as Lucious Lyon (ugh, already), the big-time music mogul at the head of a company literally named Empire Enterprises. The pilot episode opens with Lucious demonstrating how cold and cruel he can be to an artist, yet still have a preternatural ability to bring out the best in their work.

Lucious has a big announcement to make. He holds a press conference decrying the sad decline of the music industry due to so many awful, awful people downloading songs for free off the internet. But he’s going to fix all that, by taking his company public!

Ummm, huh? How does that stop people from downloading songs off the internet? We’re just supposed to go with it? OK, whatever…

Lucious has three sons, two of whom are musicians. One is a douchebag rapper and the other is a soulful (read: gay) R&B crooner. His third son is a business major who seems poised to follow in daddy’s footsteps and take over the company. However, Lucious isn’t convinced that any of them really has the stuff to fill his shoes. Business Son is smart, but a company like this needs an artist at the helm, not a suit. Gay Son is… well, he’s gay and Lucious never loved him. That leaves the moron. None of these is much of an appealing option in Lucious’ eyes. He tells the boys that he can only groom one of them to be his successor and they’ll need to compete to prove their worth. At least, the two who aren’t gay. To be really, really clear, he’s never gonna like that gay kid.

In case the connection isn’t obvious enough, one of the sons straight-up asks if this is some sort of ‘King Lear’ type deal. Color me impressed that Lee Daniels has heard of Shakespeare.

Lucious’ plans are thrown for a loop when his ex-wife Cookie (Terrence Howard’s ‘Hustle & Flow’ co-star Taraji P. Henson) gets released from prison after 17 years and comes storming back into his life. Because it was her drug-dealing that got him enough money to start a legitimate business years ago, and because she took the fall for him by going to prison, Cookie demands half the company. When he claims that he can’t give it to her (being that the company’s going public and he doesn’t actually own the whole thing anymore), she connives to play their sons against him, starting with the gay one.

Also problematic is that Lucious’ old friend, who has a gambling problem and feels that Lucious hasn’t compensated him sufficiently for his years of loyalty, tries to blackmail him for $3 million or he’ll reveal that Lucious murdered some drug dealers back in his gang-banger days. Lucious tidies up that situation by shooting his friend in the head. That’s cold, man.

Interspersed with these storylines are repeated flashbacks to Lucious getting an MRI for the inevitable reveal that he has a terrible disease (in this case, ALS) and only three years to live. Hence all the consternation about his legacy.

Clearly, this is heavy-handed stuff. It’s also really soapy. At times, I felt like I was watching a ‘Dallas’ or ‘Dynasty’ clone, but one too self-conscious to be the good trashy fun it needs to be.

The glitzy setting seems like it has potential. Rapper Timbaland is credited as music producer to give the show some cred in that area. I can’t pretend to be a connoisseur of either hip-hop or R&B. The songs sound good musically, but the lyrics are kind of ridiculous. Gay Kid sings a very on-the-nose ballad about his daddy issues called something like “Daddy, Why Don’t You Pay Attention to Me?” and the dipshit rapper’s hot new track is “Hey, Look at That over There.” As far as I can tell, neither of these is knowingly intended to be a parody.

I like the cast. Howard and Henson are both great, and Gabourey Sidibe turns up in a supporting role. Unfortunately, the first episode didn’t do much for me overall and I doubt I’ll watch again.


  1. Ian

    It was pointed out to me that the story takes more of it’s beats from “The Lion In Winter”: Taraji P. Henson is basically the Elanor of Aquitaine, there’s a gay son in there as well, and I believe if Henry II wasn’t succumbing to illness he was at least established to be getting on in years.

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