The lion and the fox: “Empire” strikes a defiant new beat

“We King Lear now?” – Jamal Lyon

In the past few years, there have been several general trends in the TV landscape: there’s a lot more of what counts as good, smart, “prestige” TV, and viewership figures have dipped. We’re in the Golden Age of TV, but there’s nobody watching.

Empire defies both of these trends.

The show has been a hit, drawing viewers in by the millions (18 million at last count), and it has achieved that feat not by being another “prestige” show, but making its own unique beat.

Empire focuses on the family and company of music legend-turned-mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who has three years to live from his recently-diagnosed ALS and must choose an eventual successor to run his music company Empire from his three sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakim (Bryshere Y. Gray). When Lucius’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is released from prison early, her return to Empire throws everybody off-guard.

If the whole successor plot sounds like Shakespeare, it could very well be. Parallels have been drawn to King Lear and The Lion in Winter, but that should not make any show weaker, let alone one featuring four Oscar nominees (creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, along with actors Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson) and Timbaland as executive music producer.

The distinguishing characteristic of the show is its liberal use of hip-hop music, never letting you forget that after all, this is a show that’s about music. Conveniently, Jamal and Hakeem are musicians, and so Empire gets plenty of opportunities to have them sing their songs (beats provided by Timbaland, no doubt).

But amidst all the music, the show wants to tell you about family.

“Now, the heart of Empire is its family. And like any family, we’ve had our differences, but when a family is in crisis, they put the differences aside and they come together.” – Lucious Lyon

The Lyon family is complicated. Each member of the family conveniently has a distinguishing characteristic: Lucious has ALS, Cookie is an ex-con, Andre is bipolar, Jamal is gay and Hakeem is… well, a brat. That makes for plenty of soapy shenanigans, and you feel sometimes that the show is teetering on ridicule, but it does ever so well in gently pulling back from the edge, then serenading you with another song.

In fact, the whole appeal of Empire is how it is constantly off-balance. What Daniels and Strong have created is a show that is twisty and… peaky. I know that’s not a real word, but “peaky” is what I’ll use to describe this crazy show. Empire is a show designed around big moments, be it a reveal, twist, cliffhanger or a killer quote, that bring your attention to a peak. And it keeps those big moments coming so often that the show gets into a rhythm, never slowing down. It’s compulsive. It’s also really fun.

Howard anchors a cast that is otherwise relatively unknown, other than his co-star Taraji P. Henson. Henson has been nominated for an Emmy and Oscar, and she steals the show as the brash Cookie. If Lucious Lyon is the anchor of the Lyon family and the Empire company, Cookie Lyon is the roadside crew that punches up the road outside your home in the morning – what they are doing is for your good, but it’s so damn disruptive!

I digress. Cookie is in many ways the driving force of the show, getting the lion’s share (pun intended) of the action and also performed superbly by Henson. I understand why Henson was nominated for an Emmy award for playing Cookie, as she performs almost as if she is on the West End instead of on a soundstage, her presence dominant wherever she is on screen.

Empire is huge. These charts from Vulture show how influential the show has already been in its first season, and it may well have saved the Fox network’s year after the demise of American Idol and the failure of its other big-budget debut Utopia. Is it a great show, full of “prestige”? Hell no. Is it wildly entertaining? Yes, yes, yes. Empire will not be the best show of any TV year, but its name rings far and wide, and come September, we’ll all be watching the second season premiere.

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