Chris Goodwin is a comedy writer/producer living in Los Angeles. Chris has been recently working as a TV staff writer, for shows such as China, IL, for Adult Swim, and Lucas Bros. Moving Co. and Major Lazer, for FXX.
Since its premiere on Fox in January, Empire has surprised the TV industry by opening strong and rising in the ratings every single week it airs. It’s a phenomenon, but I’m not surprised. I always thought that a television drama about the hip-hop industry could succeed; we just needed the right one. (Shout-out to 2003’s Platinum, though. And 50 Cent, I’ll check out Power once Starz becomes free). Empire is the right one, and it has succeeded because it has the correct captains to steer the ship.
Before we get into Empire, let’s run it back to 2009. I was first introduced to the work of director Lee Daniels after seeing Precious at the Eccles Theater at Sundance. I remember thinking that I had never seen quite anything like it. The tone of the film was completely unique; harrowing drama mixed with some extremely surreal and comic touches that came out of nowhere. The film is a delicate balance, but Precious pretty much got it right.
So leave it to Daniels and Danny Strong, who previously wrote Lee Daniels’ The Butler, to figure out the right tonal mixture for Empire. What’s fascinating about the show is the way it mixes genres. It aims to be a few things: a juicy nighttime soap in the vein of Dallas or Dynasty; a family drama that wouldn’t feel out of place on premium cable; and a gangster saga in the key of The Godfather or Scarface. Empire works on all those three fronts, mostly. It’s good, and it may yet become great.
Terrence Howard plays Lucious Lyon, a character who follows the Jay-Z trajectory: dealer turned rap superstar turned mogul/record-label owner. After Lucious is diagnosed with ALS, he has to pick one of his three sons to take over Empire Entertainment after he’s gone. There’s Jamal, a gay singer-musician who’s the most talented of the trio but isn’t fully respected by his father because of his sexuality. There’s Hakeem, the mainstream rap heartthrob who’s set up to be the next big thing, even if he doesn’t have half the artistic integrity Jamal has. And finally there’s Andre, the businessman of the family, who isn’t creative but is the glue that keeps the record label together. And, oh yeah, he’s out-of-his-mind crazy.
Making matters more complicated is the return of Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who refused to snitch on Lucious 17 years ago and just got out of the slammer. She’s a free woman and wants what’s coming to her, which she believes is Empire. And from the second you see her strutting out of her prison cell, you know she’s capable of getting it.
What makes Empire so compelling is its tone and execution. Daniels and Strong use the nighttime soap formula and, unlike most shows, they get it right. There’s a music sting in Empire that is employed whenever a character gets a key piece of information, and it’s so funny I’d pay someone 10 bucks to loop it for 10 minutes. It seems straight-up lifted from the shows that inspired Daniels and Strong, and I appreciate their trying to do this with a straight face. I can’t help thinking of another Fox show, The O.C. (bitch), which embraced the tone and feel of successful dramas that came before it, like Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, and never looked back. Empire employs a similar approach, just way more effectively.
As a lifetime hip-hop fan (I had to pull myself away from the new Kendrick Lamar album to write this), I found a lot of elements that Empire takes from the real world to be authentic, which is impressive for a show that is also this soapy. Empire avoids the Entourage problem; I never really bought that Vinnie Chase could be a major movie star in the real world, let alone in the world of a Hollywood fantasy show. But here I have no problem buying into Jamal and Hakeem being the Real McCoy in worlds both fictional and real. Daniels and Strong cast the right people and they do good work, especially Henson, who’s as great as you’ve heard.
Empire also wants to be a touching family drama and a hard-hitting, pulpy gangster story, and it regularly gels on both fronts. I appreciate the melodramatic plot twists as much as the next person, but I really enjoy spending time with the Lyon family as well. There’s real heart in these scenes. Part of me would love to see a family bottle episode fully removed from the music industry.
As far as Empire’s gangster element goes, I can’t help thinking of New Jack City as an influence. New Jack City is a 1991 cult classic, and I must have watched it over 50 times as a kid, but I’ve never seen another movie or show pay homage to it until now. The film’s director, Mario Van Peebles (The People’s Peebles), directed part one of the season finale. Judd Nelson was also in NJC and is the bad guy in Empire. And Daniels has even said he first wanted Wesley Snipes — who played New Jack City’s hero, Nino Brown — for Lucious. As engaging as Terrence Howard is as the show’s lead, it took me two episodes to get over thinking about how good it would have been to see Snipes on Empire, Nino come full circle.
What’s keeping Empire from being one of the great prime-time network dramas is the general pace of the storytelling. Man, Empire moves fast! So fast that the writers sometimes introduce something in one scene that you think will be built up and paid off during the course of the season, but not on Empire. It’s going down tonight. And maybe even in the next scene. This problem can be felt all over the finale. Empire introduces two great plot lines in the last hour, but so quickly and clumsily that you wish the show had slowed down and taken its time with these story elements. The big twists the creators hope will be discussed on Twitter are muddled and not well executed; “Oh shit!” moments become “oh…” moments. And they have to figure out Andre stat. Trai Byers seems game, but his character is thinly written and underdeveloped compared to his family, and most scenes centered around Andre just make me want to check back in with Hakeem or Cookie.
Empire only just wrapped its first season, though, and I have faith that Daniels and Strong will tweak the formula, and maybe make that Season 2 leap, just as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos did. All the ingredients are there, and it’s been a smash because it’s just extremely entertaining. It’s not the best show on TV, but that’s the beauty of TV in the internet age; you know what you are doing wrong, and you can make it right quickly.