Age of ‘Empire’

By: Jordan Ferguson

If there’s one unfortunate side effect of the sun setting on the last decade’s “Golden Age of Television,” it’s the persistent refusal of some to admit that it’s over, including the networks. Every new show, regardless of genre, star calibre or subject, seems to debut with a glistening sheen of “prestige” slathered all over it, whether or not the show’s earned, or if it even wants it in the first place.

Look at something like House of Cards: knee-deep into the show’s second season last year, it became clear to me that it had abandoned any pretensions of being an “important” drama looking to make statements on the current state of the American political system and become, as I later said to a friend, “Scandal for people who think they’re too good for Scandal.” To a certain extent I felt Netflix bamboozled me, because they seemed to be inflating the value of what they were selling, and I soured on the whole season.[1]

Maybe that’s why I’m so delighted by the unashamed, unabashed trash that is Fox’s Empire, this winter’s “surprise,”[2] success story. A weekly dose of sudsy melodrama, this show is fully aware of what it is and is not, what it will and won’t do, which is what makes it so goddamned fun.

Proud father Lucious Lyon (as played by Terrence Howard).

Proud father Lucious Lyon (as played by Terrence Howard).

Shepherded by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), Empire is the story of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a former rapper-turned-mogul who transformed a successful music career into well… an empire. Diagnosed with ALS in the show’s pilot, Lucious is forced to turn his attention to his legacy, namely which of his three sons will carry on to head the company after he’s gone.[3] Complicating matters further is the reappearance of Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). Having provided the label’s startup capital with profits from their hustling days and fresh out of jail off a bid done on Lucious’s behalf, she wants what she’s owed, no matter how it might complicate his future business plans. The sides within the family are soon set: Cookie focuses on monetizing artistic middle son Jamal into a sensitive RnB crooner, Lucious throws his weight behind ambitious but lazy youngest son Hakeem, while eldest son Andre seeks to secure his power by manipulating his brothers against each other. All set to a surprisingly good score by Timbaland.[4]

Despite a strong ensemble cast, no one could deny Henson’s portrayal of Cookie is the show’s breakout. Whether whipping her shoe down a hallway at Lucious, kicking the side of a Benz in response to a compliment or showing her ass after a misinterpreted dinner invitation, her performance is a joyous hurricane of Real Housewives-esque shade and gluttonous scenery chewing that always shifts the show into a higher gear. Thankfully the writers seem to appreciate that fact while remaining aware that the last thing they need to do is overexpose her.

If there’s anything at all surprising about the show’s success, it’s that a story so firmly rooted in (an exaggerated version of) black culture has become the cornerstone of a standard network’s broadcasting schedule. And make no mistake; the show is unapologetically rooted in black culture. It has little interest in providing a definition when words like “thot” are thrown out or pulling some white character onscreen to act as a proxy for viewers wondering why a gangbanging hardcore rapper would have ties to an Islamic community center. If you’re riding with it, the show’s happy to have you, but if something puzzles you, that’s for you and Google to figure out later.

All leopard everything.

All leopard everything.

Much about the show is preposterous, from the unlikely[5] to the borderline offensive[6], but the frequent insanity is what makes the show so enjoyable, because it doesn’t ask the audience to expect anything more. Look at it another way: when Downton Abbey concluded it’s third season by killing off a major character in a car crash, fans were livid (me included) because it was the sort of ploy for cheap drama the show purported to be better than. When Empire wraps an episode by pulling some theretofore unknown babymama out of its ass, it feels natural because the diegesis of the show is ridiculous to begin with. In effect, twists like this actually land because as viewers we’ve been retrained not to expect such hackneyed tricks.

Empire doesn’t care if its tricks are hackneyed. It’s a narrative throwback reminiscent of 80’s classics like Dynasty and Dallas. It has no grand statements to make about fathers and sons, or the sacrifices made for art and success, or positioning oneself in a society that seems to have left you behind. It’s a post-Shonda[7] confection, a creature of the live-tweeting age. It demands gargantuan suspensions of disbelief (like hip-hop still being threatening to Big Business, for one), and if you can’t muster them you won’t find much to love here.

But you might ask yourself when exactly you started hating fun?

(Episode 8 of Empire airs tonight on Fox at 9pm.)


[1] That said, having recalibrated my expectations, I’ll see y’all when Season 3 drops!

[2] Though why that’s a surprise to anyone in 2015 is a troubling notion.

[3] Lest you wonder if the Shakespearean undertones are intentional, upon learning of Lucious’s intent, one of his sons replies, “What is this, we King Lear, now?” Notice served: subtlety will not be on the menu here.

[4] This is key. If the music sucked, it wouldn’t matter how great the plot was.

[5] A music label/entertainment company attempting to alter industry paradigms by holding an IPO.

[6] Each son has a flaw that makes them ill-suited to initially take over the company: Andre is a calculating businessman with bipolar disorder and no passion for music; Hakeem emerges as a hot rapper but lacks any business acumen; Jamal is… gay. That’s it.

[7] Full disclosure, I’ve only seen a handful of Grey’s Anatomy and none of Scandal or How to Get Away With Murder. But if this is what I’ve been missing, I need to get my life together.

5 responses to “Age of ‘Empire’

  1. I’m planning on watching this but if this show is deep rooted in black culture he does not belong in it. he might be the one that makes me stop watching this show.

    Exception maybe Taraji. No one should be surprised if she’s good.

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