The Ascent of a Television ‘Empire’
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
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This summer saw the release of the NWA movie, Straight Outta Compton — think Dangerous Minds meets a Beats commercial. Starring Paul Giamatti as Jerry Heller, the group’s white manager, the film offers a self-aggrandizing celebration of Ice Cube’s underdog-to-mogul narrative and a much appreciated pushback against the self-congratulatory perspective that gave us The Help, The Blind Side and the mile-long queue of Hollywood films celebrating white people who help Black people realize their potential.
Like Straight Outta Compton, the smash Fox hit Empire is interested in the underdog-to-mogul, “No Apologies” narrative. And if you’re into watching Terrence Howard wander around a McMansion in an ascot looking for a face to punch, you’re probably twitching, not unlike the crack addicts who unwittingly financed the protagonist’s record company, with sweaty anticipation for Season 2.
Empire has jettisoned all claim to plausibility as an occasionally brilliant and frequently absurd King Lear adaptation.
For those of you late to the party, understand and accept that the party will turn homophobic, violent and prominently feature a “cum bib.” Because while Straight Outta Compton seems determined to live in some discernible reality — even if it is Ice Cube’s — Empire has gleefully jettisoned all claim to plausibility as a garbled, occasionally brilliant and frequently absurd King Lear adaptation that dismisses All My Children as overly subtle and cerebral. Let’s just say that characters will explain — and more frequently, scream — exactly what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and who needs to get got. It’s not Nabokov.
Briefly, because you’d need 25,000 words and a Venn diagram to explain the intricacies of Season 1, Empire is a show about Lucious (the Conquering?) Lyon (played by Howard), an ailing record mogul with three sons who, for reasons only Lucious understands, must engage in sibling blood sport to determine which shall inherit the company. His sons — Andre (head for business; mental health issues depicted with all the understanding of a Dennis the Menace sketch; married to the woman with the aforementioned bib); Jamal (musical genius; tormented “artiste” and conflicted Bushwick resident; gay); and Hakeem (spoiled, inchoate moron; mouth-breather with a mommy complex) — are, each in their own unique, frequently and unintentionally comedic ways, totally unfit to run the company. As is Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), their ex-con mother who surfaces after 17 years in federal custody determined to make up for lost time and insert herself into every last relationship on the show.
If it sounds like a convoluted mess, that’s because it is. Empire’s characters regularly make decisions that defy not only logic but their own stated aims, to further plot. Unmotivated, often nonsensical arguments pepper virtually every episode and act as a kind of recklessly abused drama cocaine to advance story. Courtney Love has a recurring role.
And yet, the show succeeds. Henson and Howard are (somehow) great together, reprising their partnership from Hustle & Flow, the 2005 film that almost feels like Empire’s better-written prequel. And at its core — beneath all the bad writing, the Lee Daniels “plot indicators,” the incessant screaming, “truth telling,” expositional monologues, fur coats, six-pack abs, Lucious’ ascot collection — Empire is a show about Black characters who do not need the tacit permission of white characters to exist or prosper. Lucious — a kind of ALS-suffering rage monster equal parts Diddy, Suge Knight and Ted Bundy — and Henson’s Cookie — Griselda Blanco in a fur coat and with an abiding love for hip-hop — are deeply ridiculous characters, but they’re characters with an autonomy that still feels rare in film and television. This, and perhaps only this, is what separates Empire from, say, Dynasty. But it’s also what makes Empire important, what makes it compelling and what makes it worth watching.