January 28, 2015

EMPIRE 360: We Go All-In With the Ballsy Breakout Hit

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on EMPIRE

EMPIRE: WATCH! WHERE? WHY?

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Have you ever found yourself lost in the unexpected pleasures of an amazing meal? You stumbled upon the restaurant and the food is a delicious surprise. Hooked at first bite, you can’t wait for the next course. The sudsy drama EMPIRE is like that; a gorgeous guilty pleasure tossed with shiny objects and fancy flourishes. There’s some serious brain food in the mix but the juicy, indulgent stuff  is all empty calories wrapped in high-end gloss.  You don’t know why you can’t stop eating but when it tastes this good, who cares?

The EMPIRE 360 is part introductory overview, part series review and our biggest entertainment feature to date. We start with what you need to know about EMPIRE. This section of background basics includes an interactive slide-show with photo-bios of the main characters and quotable one liners. Immediately following is the full-length RONTHINK review. We wrap with a selection of must-read topical articles and blog posts.
 
EMPIRE: AIRS WEDNESDAYS 9PM E/P ON FOX. NEXT DAY STREAMING ON:

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EMPIRE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

 
EMPIRE was created by Lee Daniels, who directed THE BUTLER, and Danny Strong, screenwriter for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY. Fans of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER will be more familiar with work in front of the camera where he played sorcerer Jonathan Levinson.  The inspiration for the series came from an idea Strong had for a present day version of KING LEAR set in the hip-hop world. Original songs are featured in every episode. Timbaland serves as executive music producer.

The Lyon Family from EMPIREEmpire Enterprises is a music and entertainment conglomerate run by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a former drug dealer turned musical artist turned media mogul. His rise to the top is full of dark and ugly stuff, most of which is parsed out in periodic flashbacks. At the outset of the pilot, Lucious is on the verge of realizing his dream of taking the company public. Everything is going according to plan until his doctor delivers devastating news about his health. Lucious is forced to face his own mortality and the threat it poses to Empire. Now, he must decide which of his three sons will succeed him as part of a stable transition plan. Until that happens, his diagnosis must be kept secret.

Things go from bad to “holy shit” when Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie  (Taraji P. Henson) shows up unexpectedly. She’s been in prison for 17 years but was granted an early release. Cookie took the fall when she was arrested running the drugs that bankrolled the start of Lucious’ career and the opening of Empire Enterprises. They started the company together but she reaped none of the rewards. Once Cookie was locked away, Lucious pretty much turned his back on her. Now it’s time for payback and revenge. Cookie wants a piece of the company she helped build and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it.

View our “who’s who” slide show of the main characters on EMPIRE. Meet the entire Lyon family and see why Cookie is already queen of quotables.

 

EMPIRE: THE RONTHINK REVIEW

 
EMPIRE isn’t shy about flashing its upmarket production pedigree. With bragging rights to impressive talent on both sides of the camera, the show has swagger. This gorgeous head-turner lives on the small screen but isn’t confined by it. Each episode is decked out in lush, cinematic style. Key scenes are set in expansive work and living spaces, a creative choice that heightens already outsize drama and brings an epic quality to the proceedings. Top shelf aesthetics give the series gloss but that’s just the eye candy icing on a gleefully badass cake. EMPIRE is easily the most audacious, addicting  and flat-out enjoyable new show of the season.
 
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on EMPIREIf you haven’t tuned in because you assumed the show would be preachy or teachy, fear not! EMPIRE is, first and foremost, spectacularly entertaining television. That doesn’t mean it’s all style and no substance. Serious  issues are tackled head-on, with frequent visits to places dark, difficult and uncomfortable. Daniels and Strong know how to keep viewers hooked without dumbing things down or turning scenes into patronizing lectures.  Dialogue is smart, sharp and colorful. There are no lapses into self-impressed, pseudointellectual claptrap. If that’s your thing, you should watch GIRLS on HBO or follow Lena Dunham’s Twitter (ego)feed.
 
Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon on EMPIREEvery good drama needs a villain and Lucious Lyon is one hell of a baddie. He’s a control freak with a mean streak and a singular focus on his own success. Everyone, including his family, is a pawn in his game.  When he isn’t manipulating something or someone, Lucious can often be found hurling homophobic invective at  his gay son or beating the tar out of some poor sap who pissed him off. Limits? Not this guy. When his old friend Bunkie becomes a problem in need of a permanent solution, Lucious shoots him point blank in the face.  Problem solved!
 
It would be easy for Howard to play Lucious as a total monster but he  opts for a more nuanced approach. He surrounds the character with a fa├žade of respectability. Lucious looks like a stand up guy but he’s really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Still, there are times when you can empathize with him and the magnitude of his personal baggage.
As good as Howard is, Taraji P. Henson is a dazzling revelation. Despite Oscar and Emmy nominations, the bulk of her work has flown below radar. That’s about to change. Cookie Lyon is a career defining role and Henson’s fearless, balls-out performance will make her a big star. She’s the main event here.
 
Henson turns Cookie into a force of nature. She’s a one woman tempest with a big mouth and bigger dreams. Cookie tosses verbal grenades with military precision and loves to make a really big entrance, invited or not. An unlocked door is all the permission she needs. If you cross her, watch out. Just ask youngest son Hakeem. When their first on-screen meeting jumps the rail, Cookie responds to his verbal abuse with a broomstick beat-down so spectacular it’s awe inspiring. She is, in every sense, one mother of a mother.
 
Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon on EMPIRE
 
Cookie won’t win any first impression awards but there’s much more to her than sound and fury. Still, the lack of social skills makes sense. Cookie was arrested at a young age. She was poor, undereducated and dealing drugs. When every day is a battle for survival, etiquette lessons aren’t on your to-do list. Prison put her life on pause. Cookie grew older but she didn’t necessarily grow up. Her days were spent in confinement, feeling alone, betrayed and angry. Now that she’s out of prison, Cookie is back among familiar faces but has to figure out how to deal with them in an unfamiliar world.
 
Although Cookie’s has flaws to spare, Henson re-frames these shortcomings in ways that connect them to something real. They become battle scars; physical manifestations of hidden emotional wounds.  Cookie might be strong and act fearless but when she lets her guard down, there are unmistakable flashes of the pain, fear and loss that haunt her. None of that can be written. It’s all in the performance and Henson hits it out of the park.
 
Terrence Howard  and Bryshere Gray as Lucious and Hakeem Lyon on EMPIRE
 
The rest of the cast is uniformly strong, with the exception of Bryshere Gray, who plays Hakeem. This is his first professional acting gig and the lack of experience shows. Yes, the character is supposed to be an irresponsible layabout, but that can’t be all there is to Hakeem. Lucious  is convinced his son is a star in the making and someone with the potential to run Empire. As it stands, Gray hasn’t given us much more than a one dimensional version of Hakeem. Without some depth to the character and evidence of hidden greatness, it won’t matter what Lucious thinks. A big chunk of plot becomes a tough sell.
Obviously, EMPIRE is well-stocked with damaged goods in the parent/child relationship department. If the show was a town, they would call it Dysfunction Junction.  Of all the emotional wreckage that litters the proverbial streets of this hapless hamlet, nothing comes close in size to the smoking hulk of twisted darkness that exists between Lucious and Jamal. It’s a toxic tango they’ve danced for years. As a spectator sport, it’s a one sided event. Jamal is the guy you cheer for. Only an asshole would choose Team Lucious.
 
Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon on EMPIRE
 
As Jamal, Jussie Smollett has taken on a role that is probably the most difficult in the cast. Because there are so many way to make a wrong move with the character, watching Smollett get it right is a pleasure. Jamal is one of the good guys but Smollett doesn’t make him a saint. He’s talented, sensitive and relatively grounded but Jamal can also be stubborn, aloof and an impetuous brat. As characters go, Smollett isn’t sticking to the “GLAAD Guide To Keeping Us Happy If You’re Playing Gay On TV” and we thank him for that. That means no sign of a new Jack, Will, Kurt or either of the gays who sank THE NEW NORMAL. Jamal can stand his ground but there are fleeting moments of shame, self-loathing and fear in the mix. The persona Smollett has created for Jamal feels organic and definitely reminds me of real people I know. That doesn’t often happen with LGBT characters in primetime.
 
As fun as it can be, EMPIRE does not sweep the raw ugliness of homophobia under the rug. There’s frequent use of “sissy” and “bitch” as gay slurs and flashbacks provide disturbing glimpses of the abuse heaped on Jamal when he was a boy. In one particularly horrifying incident, he walks into a family gathering wearing heels and a woman’s head scarf. It’s a totally innocent childhood behavior but Lucious sees something else entirely. He explodes into a blind rage and carries the little boy outside. Cookie makes a frantic attempt to stop Lucious but by the time she catches up with him, he’s already  dumped Jamal head first into a trash can. It’s a shocking and difficult thing to watch but, it’s based on fact. Lee Daniels had a similar boyhood experience at the hands of his father.
 
Jussie Smollett and Rafael de La Fuente as Jamal Lyon and Michael Sanchez on EMPIRE
 
Though gay characters are no longer rarities on television, EMPIRE takes an unusually bold approach that puts it in a class by itself. It’s the first time a broadcast network series has dealt head-on with homophobia in the black community and the hip-hop industry. There are cultural realities at play in both groups that add unique shading to the already difficult process of coming out. This storyline was a priority for Daniels so it’s especially satisfying to see it being realized so vividly and effectively.
 
On the flip side, measuring the success (or failure) of the various hip-hop elements in EMPIRE doesn’t lend itself to a succinct summary. Everyone has an opinion and none of them seem to agree. If you’re a strident hip-hop fan with no sense of humor or flexibility about the music you love, EMPIRE might drive you crazy. With the exception of one hilariously bad video shoot (look for the scene with shirtless male models rolling around in sand), most of the major music-focused sequences look great. Of course,  I’m no hip-hop expert so, I’ll leave passing ultimate judgment to those who are. Personally, I don’t care. Watching EMPIRE and bitching about something not being “authentic” is like complaining that HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER isn’t a “realistic” look at law school. Duh! These are TV dramas, not documentaries.
 
EMPIRE was a huge hit out of the gate. The numbers were strong enough to give FOX a much-needed boost out of the ratings cellar. Post-premiere, the show continues to defy convention with each of two subsequent episodes adding viewers. Though originally promoted as a limited-run event, FOX already renewed EMPIRE for a second season. Of course, that decision was a no-brainer given the numbers. Still, we’re talking about a success story no one really saw coming. There has never been a broadcast network series quite like EMPIRE. It’s set in the hip-hop business, has an almost all-black cast and leads with a front-burner gay storyline. None of that screams “monster hit” yet, that’s exactly what it is. If you haven’t yet boarded this wonderfully wild crazy train, jump on now!
 
EMPIRE is your new TV addiction and it’s waiting for you to get hooked.
 

EMPIRE: MUST READS

In addition to the text links included in this feature, we enjoyed the following posts and thought you might too. To read, click the icon next to each article.

CLICK TO READFROM THE WASHINGTON POST: “The Tragedy Behind Fox’s EMPIRE: Lee Daniels’s Father Beat Him For Being Gay”

CLICK TO READFROM ABC NEWS AND GOOD MORNING AMERICA: “Why Taraji P. Henson Nearly Turned Down the Role of Cookie in EMPIRE”

CLICK TO READFROM MORNING EDITION AND NPR: “Fox's EMPIRE Sets DYNASTY-Style Soap Opera To A Hip-Hop Beat”

CLICK TO READFROM THE WIRE AND THE ATLANTIC: “Series Co-Creator Danny Strong On EMPIRE: 'King Lear' Meets Hip Hop Meets DYNASTY”

CLICK TO READFROM THEGRIO.COM: “Series Co-Creator Lee Daniels wants EMPIRE to expose homophobia in black America”