Review: Empire ‘Pilot’

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Mixing the age old tale of King Lear, the mid 80’s soapie Dynasty and the modern world of r&b/hip hop music and drug money, Empire (Channel 10, Sunday 9pm) offers up a pilot episode that enters the ‘too good to be true’ category of first run shows because you know what…..it’s good!

I will admit, I was somewhat hesitant going into Empire as my scorecard of being entertained by shows with a musical back-tone (Smash/Glee) currently sits at a big Z E R O, but, Empire has notched up my first tick on my card.

This first episode, our first foray into the world of Lucious Lyon (Oscar nominee Terrance Howard) and his world engulfed in Empire Records, is glitzy, shiny, tough, fast-paced and it’s packed full with a lot of dialogue and back story that, if in the hands of anyone else besides Lee Daniels (The Butler) could have gone horribly wrong.

The setup has Lucious Lyon is at the top of his game.  His Empire Records…empire…has provided him with power (he’s on first name basis with Obama), money, and a lavish lifestyle we imagine someone like P.Diddy to be living in.  He’s looking to take Empire Records to the next level but he’s also holding onto a secret – he’s just been diagnosed with ALS – for which there is no cure, and sets out to find the rightful heir to his kingdom.

The problem here is that in Lucious’s eyes, none of his three children are the perfect fit to take the job.  Andre (Trai Byers), the eldest, is the well educated, business minded one but has zero musical talent – Lyon believes the next in line should be a musician – which brings us to Jamal (Jussie Smollett) who is filled to the brim with musical talent – but he’s gay, a topic that Lucious has never been able to accept (there’s a powerful flashback scene in which Lucious, so enraged by Jamal’s effeminate nature, literally throws him into the garbage can) so that leaves youngest Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) but he’s brash, uncontrollable and completely obliterated by the dollar bills readily available to him (remember Chris Lilley’s S’Mouse creation? – #NailedIt).

This struggle for Lucious to find an heir is put into turmoil by the untimely release of his ex wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) who has spent the last 17 years in prison for a crime that provided the initial seed money to create Empire Records, and she’s looking for her share of the dosh.

As I said, there’s a lot stuffed into the first episode, but what helps keep things on track is it’s leads in Howard and Henson.  Howard’s approach to Lyon – you want to feel for him…his life’s work building this musical kingdom is about to come crashing down, but his approach to his children (he treats, respects and raises each one completely differently) and ex Cookie just doesn’t sit right, but he’s sick and dying…it’s a constant struggle between the love/hate and love to hate you’ll have for him.  Henson on the other hand, complete standout.

With Cookie Lyon, there’s no bars held here.  She works the weave, the furs, the fake nails, the leopard print and her biting words “I want to show you a faggot can really run this company“.  Seriously, said by anyone else, this would have been an ultimate disaster for any show, but Henson, as Cookie Lyon, manages to walk away from this remark with viewers clapping their hands.  There is truly no one like Cookie on television and hands down, Hanson is probably the best thing on Empire.

I’ve managed to glimpse at the first 5 episodes of Empire and the show holds it’s own after it’s impressive first hit and i’m excited to see more.  Lee Daniels set out to create his “black Dynasty” and that he sure has.  Murder, lies, back-stabbing, secrets, illness, sex….it’s all there and it’s highly seducing.  Even the music (which obviously plays a big part in Empire) could have felt a little bit too Glee, but with uber producer Timberland taking the helm, it all seems to fit in nice and snug and brings the entire production together.

Empire should be on your watch list this coming Sunday night.  Mark it down!  Sunday, March 1st, 9pm on Channel 10.

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