As Precious, The Butler and The Paperboy all indicated, Lee Daniels is not a subtle storyteller. He also has an unchecked ego, placing his name before the title of his highest-grossing movie and then enlarging the font size of his name when it appears onscreen for his small screen directorial debut, the new series Empire. Regardless, a towering personality could be just the right touch for a show focused on a hip-hop maven with Jay-Z’s stature.
Unfortunately, Daniels stuffs his pilot with enough plot to give Shonda Rhimes pause, constantly going for big, bold and broad moments when what he needed to do was capture the little things inherent to this story universe. He fails to capture the rhythm of the business and songwriting aspects, instead resigning the characters to stereotypes and the motives behind their relationships to several forced lines of exposition. For a series with such formidable presences on the screen and talent behind the scenes – including Emmy-winning scribe Danny Strong as a co-writer and Timbaland as a music producer – Empire begins in a rather shoddy state of mind.
The drama tells the story of Lucius Lyon (a well-cast Terrence Howard), a magnate of one of music’s biggest labels. His hip-hop prowess, however, will come to an end due to an ALS diagnosis. With around three years to live, Lucius has to figure out which of his three sons will inherit his dynasty and reign as the future CEO on his towering leather throne. The candidates include: business savvy eldest son Andre (Trai Byers), timid but terrific songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and fame-hungry, auto-tuned superstar Hakeem (Bryshere Gray).
There are barriers standing in each son’s way. Andre probably has the credentials to sit in for his dad at the head of the ostentatious boardroom table, but Lucius wants a celebrity at the helm. Jamal is the most talented and sensitive of the group, but Lucius has never been comfortable with his middle son’s homosexuality and doubts an industry surrounded by prejudice could respect him in a position of power. Meanwhile, while Hakeem is daddy’s favorite boy, he is young and reckless, too dependent on the drink and on others to pick up his slack. (Of course, it is the introspective composer who is gay, and not the indulgent superstar. Empire could have been much more interesting with these characterizations flipped.)
It doesn’t take long before a character makes a direct reference to King Lear and not much longer until Empire trots out its conniving Lady Macbeth-type. Her name is Cookie, an appropriate character name considering how much fun Taraji P. Henson has chewing the gold-encrusted scenery in the role. She is Lucius’s conniving ex-wife, one that conveniently exits a 17-year stint in prison just in time to plant her stake into the family company. Dressed in a furry robe and with earrings the size of saucers, Henson arrests us from the moment she appears. With a dark gaze and biting confidence, she gives each trashy line of dialogue a throaty growl of energy that makes them work, ensuring that even with the formulaic plotting and rote prose, we may actually stick around for another hour.
Cookie is powerful and on the prowl, while Lucius does not invite much sympathy due to his contempt for Jamal’s sexual orientation and his quick draw to murder an old friend who returns with a debt to pay later in the episode. (The latter subplot needed much more time to play out, while setting the final scene by a large body of water made it easy to predict the victim’s fate.) The pilot only shows us tiny glimpses of the man that Lucius used to be. Daniels tries to establish Lucius as an anti-hero, with his terminal diagnosis a note of sympathy to make one forget his poor paternal qualities and penchant for cold-blooded murder. However, an anti-hero must still be a character worth rooting for, and even after one episode, Empire already has others to stand behind.