FOX’s new musical drama has taken the world by storm in recent months. For the first time in history, a show steadily gained viewers with every passing episode. That’s a rare feat in the current television landscape, and it’s easy to see why: Empire is remarkably addictive.
I recently binge-watched season one (it’s only 12 episodes), and I found myself completely immersed in Empire’s colourful and vibrant world. But let’s be clear, this is not a serious show. With its outlandish plot twists and whacky characters, Empire is more of a cartoon in the vein of Ugly Betty as opposed to prestige dramas like The Good Wife and House of Cards. But hey, there’s room for everyone at the table, and Empire has certainly crafted a unique identity for itself.
The reason the show works so well is simple: it places a hell of a lot of focus on the family dynamics at its center. With Terrance Howard at the helm as the ruthless music mogul Lucious Lyon, Empire explores the intricate and complex relationship between Luscious and his three sons – all of whom have been tempted with the prospect of taking over the billion-dollar family business. Beneath the glitzy exterior, Empire tackles some weighty themes, and every time I wrote the show off as a brainless diversion, it moved me with a poignant moment that hit a nerve. Luscious for example is a terrible, abusive father, and yet, there are moments where you feel sympathy for the man before being reminded of the heinous acts he’s committed against his kids. But the real star of the show is Taraji P. Henson, who steals every single scene as Lyon’s fiery ex-wife Cookie Lyon. Fresh of a 17-year run in prison, Cookie steamrolls her way through the show in an unpredictable and hilarious manner that leaves you completely glued to the screen. Henson’s layered performance is just fantastic on every level.
Of course Empire would fall flat on its face if the music wasn’t good, but acclaimed hit-maker Timbaland produced a number of tunes for the show and they’re not only catchy, they service the story in a manner that feels very realistic. It helps that the show isn’t a cheesy love-fest (a la Glee) where people break out in song at random moments. In Empire, artists are constantly recording new material, so the various performances feel organic instead of cringe-worthy and forced.
Sadly, Empire’s finale wasn’t as explosive as I was hoping it would be. For a show this over-the-top, the added complications for season two aren’t as thrilling as I would have liked. Spoiler Alert *** I pretty much hated Rhonda and Andre killing Vernon. Even for a show as insane as Empire, that felt like overkill. The role-reversal between Luscious and Cookie on the other hand is ripe with potential. *** Spoiler Alert
Also worth mentioning: I left the show with a much greater appreciation for rap, and that’s an achievement on its own.
It’s soapy and often melodramatic, but Empire is also a surprisingly rich series with strong performances and a highly-addictive narrative. Give the pilot a shot and decide if it’s for you.