Empire wants you to think it’s a hip-hop Nashville, another prime-time musical soap full of sexy edge, juicy melodrama, and buzzy beats you can tweet along to. Taraji P. Henson did NOT just say that! #GoatAss. The joyous surprise of the pilot (the only episode available for review) is that it’s something deeper—a richly realized family drama—and something provocative—a saga of a black gay man that directly confronts hip-hop’s homophobia. Now, that’s something to tweet about.
At the head of Empire Entertainment is Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard in a role that comes off as a what-happened-next? continuation of his Oscar-nominated performance in Hustle & Flow. Lucious is a drug dealer-turned-rap star-turned-record mogul with an arty rep who has become, of late, ”more concerned with selling T-shirts and watches and whatever,” in the words of one of his sons. His ambition to transform Empire into a transcendent brand might have something to do with mortality jitters: Lucious, hiding health problems from everyone, learns he has ALS.
Helped by his doleful visage, tender voice, and soulful air, Howard keeps us caring about Lucious even as he reveals his monstrous shades. Needing a successor, Lucious goes King Lear and makes his three adult sons fight for it. Andre (Trai Byers) is a savvy businessman with an Ivy League M.B.A. and a white girlfriend who has his ear. Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is a hard-partying rapper with a tight rapport with brother Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a musical prodigy. Jamal is also gay, which, in Lucious’ eyes, makes him a marketing challenge and worse: A flashback involving a garbage can makes his feelings about his son’s identity viscerally and metaphorically clear. A standout moment comes when Jamal sings ”I Just Want You to Look at Me,” a love song full of ache for his father’s acceptance.
But Empire belongs to Taraji P. Henson. She’s Cookie, Lucious’ ex, the boys’ mother, and a clever iteration of the neglected good wife: We meet her as she’s getting released from prison after serving 17 years for selling drugs for her husband. The second she struts out of the joint, fur-decked and royally pissed, we’re rooting for her to get what’s hers. Though she takes charge of Jamal’s career and backs his coming out, she’s no enlightened soul; her use of a certain slur will make you cringe, as it should, but it’s true to her character. Cookie says the damnedest things, and she could easily tip camp, but Henson’s controlled performance keeps her human.
Empire comes from writer Danny Strong (Game Change) and director Lee Daniels (Precious)—collaborators on 2013’s The Butler—and they oversee the pilot with an unfussy style and attentiveness to nuanced characterizations. I hope they have enough imagination to nurture an ongoing series without pulling punches (Lucious isn’t a bigot, just a tough-love dad!) or going soap opera cray-cray. The more Empire keeps it real, the more it will sing. A-