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:

Watch On HuluWatch On iTunesWatch On Google PlayICON 2015 XboxWatch On Amazon Instant Video

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”

 

January 19, 2015

STARDUMB: A Shiny New Year Of Celebrity Stupidity

Miley Cyrus

MILEY CYRUS: She Opens Wide

While class acts like Lorde and Meghan Trainor were topping the charts without going topless, a familiar face crawled out of the skank tank. Shocking no one, Miley Cyrus kicked off the new year by spreading for a spread in V magazine. She (and V) dropped a bunch of the photos on Instagram because Cyrus doesn’t think there’s enough female nudity on the internet. Reminiscent of tawdry Polaroids shot 70’s style in the basement of a dirty old man, the latest trash wallow from the reigning queen of Whore Pop will appeal to online cellar dwellers and fans of pseudo kiddie porn. Along with that famous potty mouth, Cyrus can now add her legs to the list of things she can’t keep closed.

Naya Rivera

NAYA RIVERA: No Ethnic Cleansing

With ratings in the cellar and THE TALK nipping at its heels, daytime disaster THE VIEW is grasping at straws to save itself. You know things are bad when producers resort to a desperation move like dragging a semi-lucid Barbara Walters back on air. As if resurrecting the Crypt Keeper wasn’t pathetic enough, a fired (or not fired, if you believe Rosie O’Donnell) Rosie Perez has been replaced by a rotating roster of much younger guest hosts. Enter GLEE diva Naya Rivera, an apparent dingbat who blew up Twitter for all the wrong reasons. Managing the difficult task of being racially offense to just about everyone, Rivera advanced a bizarro theory that “white people shower a lot more than ethnics.” It was a stunningly ignorant statement that recalled those awful “dirty Mexican/Cuban/Puerto Rican, etc” stereotypes (Rivera, it should be noted, is Puerto Rican and black) and completely ignored perpetually dirty white people like Kristen Stewart, Johnny Depp, Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman and Mickey Rourke. Rivera was forced to give the obligatory on-air mea culpa but, by then, the damage was done.

Ryan Seacrest

RYAN SEACREST: Shits On Sherlock

Perhaps it’s sadly appropriate that the Oscar snub of “Selma” was presaged by someone just as white, vapid and clueless as the majority of Motion Picture Academy voters. Ryan Seacrest, one of the most inexplicably over-employed guys in Hollywood, once again proved himself to be as tiny in intellect as he is in stature. On the red carpet for E! at the Golden Globes, Little Ryan was chatting it up with SHERLOCK star and best actor nominee (for THE IMITATION GAME) Benedict Cumberbatch. Seacrest asked him which movie he watched during his flight from the UK. Cumberbatch, known for his gracious praise of fellow artists, took the opportunity to heap accolades on SELMA and fellow best actor nominee David Oyelowo. Unfortunately, he made the mistake of wasting a heartfelt response on a miniature mannequin with the gnat-like attention span of most E! viewers. Seacrest cut Cumberbatch off mid-sentence and dismissed him in favor of a throw to co-host Giuliana Rancic, making an ass of herself elsewhere on the red carpet. Speaking of…

Giuliana Rancic

GIULIANA RANCIC: Bag Of Bones

When she’s not hawking crappy recliners and love seats for Ashley Furniture, the disturbingly bulbous head of Giuliana Rancic can be seen on E!, the one network that makes Bravo and MTV look smart. Like her on-air cohort Ryan Seacrest, Rancic keeps getting work even though no one can tell you why. She’s not particularly warm, witty or engaging yet there she is, popping up on air like the cable version of a cold sore. While we have no idea (or interest in) what she does in her off hours, it look like eating isn’t a big priority. How else to explain her scary-thin appearance of late? Rancic has always been on the bony side but these days she’s fast approaching the  outskirts of Karen Carpenter country. Social media was all over her disappearing act. If her plan is to look like a life-size Bratz doll all we have to say is: mission accomplished.

Nancy Grace

NANCY GRACE: Gone To Pot

On a good day, Nancy Grace makes us wish for an a-la-carte option to freedom of the press. The self-appointed judge, jury and executioner always has something to say even when she has no idea what the hell she’s talking about. Making matters worse, her mind-numbing blah, blah, blah is packaged with an outsized ego and a smarmy Georgia drawl (that you just know she overplays). Membership in the “STFU Nancy Grace Fan Club” grew exponentially in the past few weeks following a ramp-up of her crusade against marijuana legalization. Armed with research that we’re pretty sure can be sourced to REEFER MADNESS, Grace used her HLN show to misinform the network’s tens of viewers. She even tried some good, old-fashioned stereotyping to breathe life into her bogus boogeyman. When you’re preaching to a “pot is the devil’s weed” crowd, a stoner rap artist is a must-have accessory. That’s where 2 Chainz enters the picture and an already silly story boards the crazy train. Grace opens the segment in hyper-bitch mode and greets level-headed, reality-based responses to her questions by yelling…just because. How dare the scary black man not be scary!

John Travolta

JOHN TRAVOLTA: No Selfie Control

John Travolta is not gay. We repeat: NOT gay. If he’s not being gay while ridding the world of Xenu’s thetans, then he’s not being gay butchering names on award shows. In fact, Travolta is so secure with his complete lack of the gay, he’s willing to share it with the world…even when the situation sounds like a scene from gay porn. While the gays were going about their nocturnal cruising, the not gay actor was hitting the gym for a late-night workout. We know this because of a selfie that made the rounds last week. In it, Travolta is pictured with a much younger gym patron who thought he was alone for his 3 AM workout. Surprise! John Travolta was there too, not cruising for muscle boys and definitely not being gay. So what if it was way, way after hours and the guy just happened to be pretty darn cute? There’s nothing gay about any of that. Just like it’s totally not gay that gym boy had no idea Travolta was even there until the actor approached him and started the chit chat. Sure, that might make this the first time in selfie history where the celebrity stalked the fan but, John Travolta is not gay. Just ask Tom Cruise. He’ll back us up.

January 16, 2015

THE ARCHIVE: The Boston Marathon Bombing

Remembering the lives lost during and after the Boston Marathon Bombing.

Remembering. Reflecting. Recovering.

This blog was only a few months old when terrorists set off two homemade bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Though it was never our intention to cover breaking news, RONTHINK became a temporary clearing house for the latest developments almost immediately after we heard about the explosions from friends who were on-site at the event. We spent days separating fact from fiction; squashing rumors and false leads that were widely reported in major news outlets. With a huge assist from our amazing Twitter followers and Facebook friends, RONTHINK became a small part of a much bigger narrative; one that rose from the depths of fear and soared to become Boston Strong.

As jury selection gets underway here in Boston for the trial of surviving bombing suspect Dzhokar Tsarnaev, we can think of no better time to remember the lives lost and those saved by first responders and everyday heroes. Scroll down the page and join us for a journey of reflection and recovery with a visit to the RONTHINK Archives and a look back at all of our Boston Marathon Bombing coverage.

Gravely injured Jeff Bauman rescued by paramedics and everyday hero Carlos Arredondo.

The Archive: Boston Marathon Bombing

NOTE: We cannot be responsible for the state of links to outside media resources, including websites, document embeds, video clips and interviews. We apologize for any inactive resource links but it is our intention to preserve these selections from our archive in their original state as a digital time capsule.

CLICK HERE for our main news coverage page. This was our “living, breathing” base of operations. It launched in the immediate aftermath of the attack and ran 24/7 as local, state and Federal authorities pursued the bombing suspects. Includes extensive links to additional news coverage and a large photo gallery.

CLICK HERE for a first person account of the bombing and reflection on the aftermath from RONTHINK correspondent Pete Hogan. Pete was tapped to cover video games for us but found himself thrust into a nightmare. His wife, Jennifer, was running the Boston Marathon for the first time. She crossed the finish line nine minutes before the first explosion.

CLICK HERE for our report on the first hearing of United States of America v. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, held bedside by Judge Marianne B. Bowler in Tsarnaev’s hospital room. Includes links to additional news reports.

CLICK HERE to read the full criminal complaint against Tsarnaev.

CLICK HERE to listen to the chilling first-person account of gravely injured bombing victim Jeff Bauman. Bauman, who lost both legs as a result of the attack, is pictured above in an iconic image from that day.

CLICK HERE for a full account of the charges that were leveled against friends of Tsarnaev. Includes the full criminal complaint.

The now-famous "Boston Strong" cover from Boston Magazine. CLICK for more information.