As one music-centric TV show is about to go off the air, FOX is introducing a brand-new one that promises to be more gritty, dramatic and tense than Glee. The two shows are nothing alike, save for the fact that music is involved, but is it still good? That’s what matters, after all, no matter what shows we may compare it to.
Empire, on paper, is quite impressive, considering all the big-names both in front of and behind the camera. For the latter, you have Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) and Danny Strong (The Butler, Game Change) who created the series. They’re also executive producers, along with Brian Grazer (24, Friday Night Lights, Parenthood). And the music is courtesy of Timbaland.
Can it get any better than that? In fact, yes, because on screen we’re treated to the likes of Terrence Howard (Crash, Hustle & Flow), Taraji P. Henson (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and even Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) — all three are Academy Award nominees.
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Howard plays Lucious Lyon, considered the “king of hip-hop” and the CEO of Empire Entertainment. He is diagnosed with a disease that will eventually leave him unable to run his company, so he must groom one of his three sons to take over. To make an already bad situation worse, his ex-wife, Cookie, played by Henson, is released from jail early and starts meddling in his business because she wants what she deserves.
When you consider that one of the three sons will earn their father’s CEO position, sibling rivalry is bound to explode. And with Cookie interfering in everything, heads will explode at some point, no doubt. How can it not? This has the feel of a soap-like drama. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not generally a viewer of primetime soap dramas, but Empire has potential, depending on where it goes beyond the pilot.
Terrence Howard brings a strong presence to the show. He’s playing the head of a music company, and he is able to pull off the strength and respect needed for a leader of his caliber. He’s not always the loudest or most dramatic person on screen. But his presence is still felt nonetheless.
Howard is able to bring forth a darker side in flashbacks. One in particular that’s featured in the pilot stands out to me. One of Lucious’ sons, Jamal, is gay, and there’s a scene where we see him as a little boy putting on high heels and parading around the house in them. Let’s just say Lucious is anything but happy to see Jamal dressing up — this leads to a heart-wrenching and disturbing scene.
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Despite all I’ve said about what Terrence Howard brings to his role, the standout of all the cast members by far is Taraji P. Henson as Cookie. From her entrance on screen to every scene that follows, she draws you in and you can’t help but be captivated by how she plays this character. Cookie is bold, outspoken and not afraid to meddle in other people’s lives.
Over the course of the pilot, Cookie visits each of her sons, reconnecting with them, and eventually her ex-husband as well. She helped Lucious start Empire, and she’s looking to reap the benefits of her contributions. “I want what’s mine,” she says. But Lucious is reluctant to have her involved in anything, whether it’s in a position at Empire or giving her money. Of course, she’s not above blackmail to get what she wants. These scenes showcase Henson brilliantly and prove that this series wouldn’t be the same if she was not part of the cast.
Because Empire has these two acting heavyweights on screen, it leaves some of the other actors stuck in their shadows. Take the three sons, for instance. They each have their own characteristics and attributes — Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is the youngest and prefers fame over working hard, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the middle child and a “musical prodigy,” and Andre (Trai Byers) is the oldest and works at Empire as CFO — which is important.
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Right from the pilot, we can see how different all three are from each other, which will make for some great family drama. But I wouldn’t say I’m blown away by any of the actors just yet. There’s always time for that to change in the future, of course.
I mentioned at the start of this review that FOX is debuting Empire just as its other scripted music series is about to go off the air. But whereas Glee heavily showcases performances, Empire is more like ABC’s Nashville in this regard because the plot is at the forefront and the music is featured when it fits the situation. With Timabland involved in this area of the show, I expect the quality of the songs to be great. But if the pilot if anything to go by, I’m not impressed just yet. Many of the songs featured in the opener are forgettable.
However, the one standout to me is in the opening scene when a singer is in the recording booth while Lucious and others look on. She’s singing a beautiful ballad, and she has an unbelievable voice. Lucious helps her to dig deeper and bring out more emotion (which shows how much he understands music and how good he is at his job). It’s unfortunate that she’s not a main cast member because I prefer that performance to the others featured in the episode by the series regulars.
Empire is airing in the post-American Idol timeslot. Now, as we know, Idol is not what it used to be when it comes to ratings, so getting that timeslot will not guarantee success. But it can’t hurt either, especially since both are music shows. Viewers of the singing competition series may want to sample FOX’s newest drama. Empire is not for everyone, though, mainly because of the genre of music featured. Unlike Glee, with its pop and mainstream covers, Empire does not cater to a wide audience.
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However, it has a lot of potential. The family drama is at the heart of the series, and I expect they’ll keep that up, though I want the producers to also make sure they don’t lose sight of the fact that the characters work in the music industry and there’s plenty of storylines that can unfold about today’s music landscape.
Also, if the writers and producers can give some of the other actors a chance to step out from under Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson‘s shadows, that will only make Empire stronger and more well-rounded. And while I don’t expect every single song to blow us away, I don’t want them to be forgettable either. Only time will tell if we see these improvements. But as I’ve said, Empire has potential — now it just needs the viewers to tune in.
Are you planning on watching Empire? Does the family drama have you intrigued? And do you think you’ll be more interested in that or the music?
Empire premieres tonight at 9pm following the season 14 premiere of American Idol on FOX.
(Image and videos courtesy of FOX)