Thursday, February 12, 2015

Listen to the Lyon: Empire

Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard co-star in Empire, on FOX.

By Wikipedia’s count, Empire is the fourth non-documentary TV series to be titled Empire, including a short-lived ‘60s Western featuring the young Ryan O’Neal, an even-shorter-lived ABC Roman Empire drama featuring the young Emily Blunt and James Frain, and a 1984 corporate sitcom that starred Dennis Dugan, on his way to becoming our leading director of feature films starring comedians whose careers were launched by Lorne Michaels after he just stopped caring. Network executives probably like the sound of that title for its blunt, straightforward grandiosity; it captures what they see themselves as controlling and embodying, and imagine that ordinary TV viewers will salivate at the prospect of being given a glimpse of life at the top. Amusingly, the male protagonist of the new Empire is a street artist turned multi-million-dollar mogul who has named his music company Empire Entertainment, which tells you everything you need to know about his taste for grandiosity.

Terrence Howard, who gave a star-making performance as a pimp aspiring to become a rapper in the movie Hustle and Flow, plays Lucious Lyon, a living legend of hip hop who has moved from the stage to the corporate penthouse. There are flashbacks to Lucious’ pre-stardom years as a scuffling young man with a wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), big dreams, and a violent streak. The contrasting images of Howard in shabby rooms and one of Baretta’s old caps and the sleek, self-satisfied man Lucious has become, combined with the name “Lyon,” call up memories of Steve McQueen’s famous remark about getting outfitted for his change of pace role as a spoiled millionaire in The Thomas Crown Affair: about how, to play this cat, he had to acquire the right kind of fur. Howard looks as if he’s been lapping his cream from the most deluxe saucers, but Lucious has a Terrible Secret: the pilot episode opens with the news that he’s suffering from ALS and has only three years to live, depending on the ratings.

Bryshere Gray and Jussie Smollett on Empire.
Compared to the problems that Lucious’ family contrives to hand him, the prospect of his imminent demise barely rates a wince. He has three sons, who between them manage to box the compass of potential Oedipal issues. Andre (Trai Byers), the oldest, is the designated heir to his father’s businessman side, which makes him the most treacherous; he wears suits, works as the company’s CFO, and has a white wife (Kaitlin Doubleday) to assist him in his scheming. (She’s a junior-league Lady Macbeth inserted into the show’s gender-reversed King Lear set-up). The youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), has grown up rich and spoiled, equates his trainer-perfected pecs and six-pack and his gold chains with “authenticity” and street smarts, and expects stardom as his due; he’s as delusional as an interview with Will Smith’s kids, but he has enough actual talent that the unsentimental Lucious embraces him as the heir to his artistic legacy. The real artist of Lucious’ sons is Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a singer-songwriter who cuts a sinuous, slow-burning flow in the studio, but who is rejected by Lucious because he is openly gay. Jamal is, of course, the favorite of his mother, who takes up his career as her special cause after she barges into the offices of Empire Entertainment, demanding her due after being released from prison for the drug dealing that provided her ex-husband with his seed money.

Terrence Howard holds the screen with the plummy assurance of a star who is much pleased with his role and the wardrobe that comes with it, but it’s Taraji P. Henson who is Empire’s breakout star, and the chief wild card on a show that has more than a couple of them tucked up its sleeve. Cookie is ready to tear loose after seventeen years behind bars, and Henson may think that she can relate. For two and a half seasons, she did solid work as the voice of reason and moral center of the crackerjack cyber-action show Person of Interest. Good as she was, watching her here, you have to suspect that there were days when it took a lot of determination to drag herself to the set for another day of counseling restraint while the other actors were getting to bust bad guys’ heads open. Unlike her husband and his sidekick Vernon (the indispensable Malik Yoba), Cookie didn’t get to move up the social-economic ladder rung by rung, learning as she went. She comes straight from prison to the penthouse suites, and she hasn’t come to make friends. Dropping her son off at a “ghetto-ass studio” to make a recording after Lucious has cut him off, she warns the studio producer to treat her boy right by patting her bag and saying, “I’m holding. The name’s Cookie. Ask around.” The producer, who has clearly seen some shit in his time, nods and, barely looking up from his lunch, asks Jamal, “That’s your Mom?”

Grace Gealey and Terrence Howard in Empire.
Cookie expects respect, and she also extends it, albeit in a back-handed way: when Empire is embroiled in a controversy over one its artists, Cookie tells a reporter that the real problem with the artist is that he’s a poseur who doesn’t really represent the way the great Lucious Lyon used to when he was in his prime. (Lucious, after giving it some thought, decides that she’s right and cancels the younger man’s contract.) Even when Cookie goes after her ex-husband’s silky fiancée, Anika (Grace Gealey) – she accuses her of looking like a TV anchorperson with her short hairdo she frames her attack as a defense of Lucious’ “authenticity”: she sees Anika as a pampered phony who mitigates Lucious’ street cred. Cookie and Lucious are defined as antagonists, but the show includes wonderful little throwaway moments when they drop their guard and talk to each other the way only people with a lot of history can communicate. (When Lucious slips and addresses Cookie as “Baby,” she cautions him about using the same term of endearment with her that he uses with his lady of the moment. “How ‘bout ‘Baby Mama’?” he asks. She whoops and reminds him, as if for the millionth time, that he’s crazy.)

Empire is juicy, zesty, funny melodrama, at least on a par with the first couple of seasons of Nashville, with subplots involving murder threats and drug deals mirroring the music the same way that falling off the wagon and memories of old flames that never completely go out mirror the music in Nashville. (It’s the worlds of these characters, whether they’re putting it into their lives or their art.) And it represents a quantum leap in terms of network television trying to depict the world of hip hop without embarrassing itself. (Timbaland worked on the music.) But mainly, it understands the ironies of the business and the art that business is erected on well enough to wring fresh drama from it, and play smart games with it. The show doesn’t hammer home the point that Jamal is the real artist of the future because his struggle to gain his father’s acceptance of his sexual orientation drives him the way his father was driven to overcome his own poverty and rough life, because it trusts the audience to grasp this without any hammering, just as it underplays the joke that it’s the son who Lucious took out of the rap game and sent to college to get a business degree is the one with the ruthless streak and the least qualms about doing whatever it takes to get what he wants. Everybody on Empire is a player, or wants to be; some of them are just more sensitive, and human, about it. When Cookie learns that the young teen favorite she’s been nurturing, and who’s become involved both professionally and personally with Hakeem, has a lesbian sex tape going the rounds, she’s direct as always, but not unsympathetic. “I don’t judge,” she tells the girl, “but you’re a freak. That’s a good thing. We can sell that.”

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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