'Empire' is on fire. Should we be sweating burn-out?
This season, Fox has been trying to field new hits by making shows based on pop culture its adult audience can recognize—from the comic book pulp of Gotham to the YA tragicomedy of Red Band Society, the next gen House of Backstrom to the next gen Seinfeld of Mulaney. In many of these efforts, we see the Fox-Backstrom Theory of Contemporary Generational Conflict at work: Optimistic, crusading Millennials suffer or revolt against the worldview of those miserable, narcissistic elders.
In Gotham, idealistic, reform-minded Jim Gordon and older, cynical, that’s-just-the-way-it-is Harvey Bullock bicker and brood as they vainly try to bring justice to Dystopiatown. With Red Band Society, Fox gambled that a nation of John Green-reading adults would see themselves in a ward of plucky teenagers doing the carpe diem thing while trying to beat back the toxic zeitgeist spirit-sapping afflictions. The show failed out of the gate for any number of reasons—like trying to make sickness noble fun, or perhaps just failing at that goal. Sure, we want inspiration in these gloomy times—but when you feel like the world is burning, what you also want is some good fiddling.
Empire is good at fiddling. Fox’s most successful new show of the season—tracking a pivotal moment in the life of a prominent hip hop label run by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a former drug dealer turned rap superstar—has been growing and growing since a strong debut and is bucking for pop phenom status.
Everyone has a theory why. For starters: Empire is a potent musical drama for a generation that was weaned on MTV and Disney musicals and still grooves to the form. (It’s becoming increasingly difficult to remember the not-so-long-ago time when conventional wisdom held that musicals were dead.) Empire works well as a family melodrama, and specifically, a melodrama about an African American family, making it something broadcast television doesn’t always do well and/or often. Empire resonates with a generation that grew up on hip hop, and for whom hip hop is pop music—a perspective that feels fresh and original, mostly because mainstream TV (or “white TV,” as Lucious might call it) has been slow to canonize and evangelize said perspective. Empire is pop culture about the power and influence of pop culture, and therefore fascinating for media blowhards like me to blow hard about. And Empire knows how to get people buzzing with pulpy turns, catfight scraps and juicy provocations—the fiddling. The bib. The Obama bashing. The increasingly uncountable moments when Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie flames on with imminently quotable attitude. This is to say nothing of all her fabulous hats.
Empire swirls with specific cultural narratives formulated in clever ways. It takes the familiar, unfortunate story of black men raised by single mothers and neglected by absent fathers, then executes a role reversal that dramatizes the damaging effects of that story even as the show expands its resonance. Here, Lucious was forced to be the single parent—but he did it badly, wounding his three sons in myriad ways while he chased worldly significance. Lucious may as well have been an absent dad, though in truth, he’s just like too many so-called present fathers, distracted and remote. Howard effortlessly embodies the character’s hypocrisies and imbues him with a palpable emotional life without sanding off his alienating edge.
The boys, now adults, chase after his affection, affirmation, and approval via an absurd, degrading situation of Lyon’s design: He wants them to compete against each other for the right to inherit Empire Entertainment. It’s My Three Sons as King Lear, with Lucious Lyon as a Bizarro World Fred MacMurray. His dead man walking condition—Lucious has ALS and only a few years to live, maybe less—is pun and punishment for his fatherly sins: He is, figuratively and literally, a deadbeat dad.
Meanwhile, there’s Cookie, who missed her kids’ childhood because she was in jail for slinging the dope that bankrolled her husband’s dream and provided for her sons. For her service on behalf of the family she loved to pieces, Cookie got nothing but crumbs. Her husband abandoned her, her kids don’t appreciate her—humiliations that too many moms from all walks of life know well. Now out of the clink, Cookie wants what’s owed her, materially and emotionally—and she wants it with a hell-hath-no-fury passion, though one of the many fine things Henson does with the part is keep Cookie just this side of camp, even when she’s throwing shoes and tossing quips. “What do you want, a medal?” snaps resentful Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), the family’s ‘daddy’s boy’ youngest child, soon after she’s released in episode one. “What I want is some respect!” Cookie cracks, then clocks him upside the head.
Empire has crackled most so far when it’s been all about Lucious vs. Cookie—two great actors, Howard and Henson, just brawling with each other. Their tension is electric, as is their attraction; their furious fights double as mating dances, and my guess is that the season is slowly walking us up to a potential reconciliation. We cheer for it, because why wouldn’t we? Dad and Mom are getting back together! But this might be as good as it gets for these two and as much as they deserve from this story—for Lucious and Cookie are anti-heroes, and even villains in the lives of their children, at least at present. They are horrid exploiters who do that Drama of The Gifted Child thing, effectively abusing their talented children as equipment for fulfillment. For Lucious, his sons are his immortality. For Cookie, they are her redemption and/or her vengeance. They are also—per the Fox-Backstrom Theory of Contemporary Generational Conflict—incarnations of entrenched and egregious worldviews for idealistic Millennials to rebel against.
The true hero of Empire is Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the middle son, a gay musical prodigy. Lucious finds Jamal’s sexuality shameful and bad for business. Cookie—no homophobic but far from enlightened—takes on the project of turning Jamal into a superstar. But really, she’s using him to exalt herself and hurt Lucious. Jamal just wants the unconditional love of his parents and the opportunity to actualize as an artist.
In the second episode, Lucious decides to launch Hakeem, an aspiring rapper, at Leviticus, his new club—Leviticus being the book in The Bible where you can find violent verses condemning homosexuality that haters love to quote. Hakeem has many flaws—he’s materialistic, he’s entitled, he’s piggish, and he’s curiously self-sabotaging every opportunity his father gives him—but one of his redeeming values is his embrace of Jamal. And just like Jamal, he resents how his parents are pitting the two of them against each other. Taking the stage at Leviticus that was essentially built for him, Hakeem honors his brother and upsets his father by sharing the spotlight with Jamal. For a moment, the children of Empire are united in opposing its retrograde values. They are the New Testament rebuke and repair to bad, broken piece of Old Testament thinking.
Empire works best for me when it’s a character-driven, sudsy yet soulful musical drama that is both aware of the culture and about the culture. The aforementioned Leviticus episode was more explicitly about another type of violent verse altogether: the influence of rap lyrics romanticizing “thug” life. It also dealt with how the entertainment industry exploits and markets controversy, hip hop’s representation of masculinity, and how black rappers might modulate their personalities for mass approval—or rather, white America. “I gotta go on white TV and talk in a way that doesn’t frighten these folks to death,” Lucious says before appearing on a cable news network to defend his label after a deadly mass murder allegedly inspired by the music of one of his artists. (Cookie, in her cutting way, scolds him for his self-censoring and sucking up: “Sounds like you went and grew a vagina” and “I liked you better when you were a thug.”) The interview scene that follows is made more layered and complex by having Jamal at home, watching it as he composes a song in response to his father’s scripted, politic answers. It’s called “Tell The Truth.” The cross-cutting is poignant; the sequence plays like an exhortation from son to father to confront his hypocrisies—not just for his own sake, but for his father’s sake, and their relationship.
As Empire moves forward, I worry that might struggle with something of a personality disorder. How to balance the tawdry and the heavy? It will need a huge imagination to keep feeding both values. There’s an unfussy, almost deadpan reserve to Empire’s filmmaking that’s inversely proportional to its “oh, snap!” spunk and kink; you get the sense the show would rather err on the side of classy than soap. Even the musical moments feel restrained: So far, they’re rigorously organic and contained within the story. They never blow up into pizzazzy set-pieces or take on subjective perspective.
Regardless, Empire’s current tonal balance feels just right. If it were more topical, even an over-thinker like me might find it too ponderous for its own good; if it were more gonzo, I won’t be able to take its characters or its world seriously at all. Last week’s episode ended with two great scenes: Jamal manning up to and declaring war on his dad, and the revelation that Hakeem has been filling his ache for a mother with a sexy, self-degrading relationship with an older woman (Naomi Campbell). She’s totally beyond his control; in fact, she controls him. “My mama,” she makes him say in bed—”my mama,” over and over. Both scenes found the sweet spot of ripe melodrama that’s emotionally and psychologically credible.
Empire’s challenge is summarized by Andre (Trai Byers), the oldest boy: good son and good corporate soldier, a sexy MBA with no music in his soul. He’s also bipolar, has gone off his meds, and is slowly, surely losing possession of his personality. One second, he’s plotting Empire’s IPO; the next, he’s dictating evil schemes into his tape recorder like some cartoon super-villain. (We should demand that Empire give us a sensitive treatment of this very real mental illness. But will we?) I’m curious to see the chaos that might be unleashed by Dr. Jekyll going Mr. Hyde; I’m terrified of it, too, or at least, what it—and what my want for it—will do to the show. Catering to cray-cray because that’s what we’re buzzing about right now could send this series off the rails. Empire should burn bright and long—not blaze out quickly from so much fiddling.