Tuesday, January 6, 2015

FOX is 'Empire' Building, a Potential Contemporary Classic

Terrence Howard: Luscious as Lucious in 'Empire' (Chuck Hodes/FOX)
OK, ladies, your attention please! FOX is prepared to offer you the opportunity to gaze week after week at Terrence Howard, he of the velvety café au lait skin and sparkling green eyes, draped in some of the most dashing men's attire currently displayed on network television.

Your vote on Empire? Greatest new show on TV? Gotcha. All right, next review!

But seriously folks, as Lucious Lyon, the suave yet sinister mogul of a music and entertainment megacorp (think Jay-Z, but good lookin'), Howard is the focal point – and, ironically, the eye candy – of Empire, the hip-hop rendition of Dallas premiering at 9:01 p.m. EST Tuesday (Jan. 7, 2015) on FOX.

Lucious knows the president by his first name and waxes eloquent on the role of the Internet in killing his music industry. However, make no mistake: it's Taraji P. Henson, his fellow Oscar-nominated actor, in the role of ex-wife Cookie Lyon that gives this show its hustle and flow.

Cookie is the straw that stirs the drink, the engine that drives the vehicle, the hip that moves the hop. She's just been released from prison for good behavior after serving 17 years on drug possession charges, it was her drug money that financed Lucious' Empire Entertainment conglomerate, and she's back "to get what's mine" – just as Lucious is attempting to take his company public. She is brutally honest, and honestly brutal.

Protect the children.

If this Empire collapses, it will be only because of the weight of its expectations. I mean, look at its name! FOX has mounted a tremendous assault of promotion and hype for this series. It has been handed a desirable, compatible time slot behind the return of American Idol. Joe Buck talked more last Sunday about its premiere than about how the Detroit Lions were getting screwed in the NFL playoff game. And whether you believe the hype or not, at least you can understand the reason why.
He's Lyon, but She's One Tough Cookie. (FOX)

Empire is the creation of super-hot Lee Daniels, basking in the glow of his celebrated work on the films Lee Daniels' The Butler and Precious. Daniels is executive producer, directed the pilot and co-wrote it with his screenwriting partner Danny Strong. He was taking no chances of having his vision altered. So much juice has he that he persuaded his Precious star Gabourey Sidibe to take a brief, sassy guest role as Lucious' secretary. (And one can't help notice that Lyon's henchman, Bunky, who could have used any comparison to voice his discontent, complains that Lucious "treats me like the butler.")

The cast is simply extraordinary. When Malik Yoba, who plays Empire's chairman of the board, is listed fifth among the opening credits, you know you're dealing with some serious star power here. No less a personage than rapper-producer Timbaland, a mini music mogul in his own right, composed the original music for Empire, and much of it is pretty sweet. One wonders, however, if the music doesn't sometimes overwhelm or sidetrack the storyline.

And what a storyline. For reasons that become clear late in the hour, Lucious feels its time to hand down his kingdom to one of his three sons. "What is this, we King Lear now?" asks one. Well, yeah, kinda, if the king could have freestyled. Lucious insists "it's time for one of you Negroes to man up" and claim the throne.

There's the eldest son, Andre (Trai Byers), the polished Ivy League grad who is most qualified to take over the business but lacks the superstar-artist image Lucious wants for his company's CEO. There's middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett), an immensely talented singer-songwriter whose sexual orientation has caused him to be ostracized by his homophobic father. (It has been suggested that this dynamic is patterned after Daniels' own relationship with his police officer father and undoubtedly will generate dialogue about being black and gay in America in weeks to come.) And there's Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), the golden child, a hip-hop superstar in training whose pampered upbringing and wild excesses may derail his career.

Lyon cubs Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) compete. (Chuck Hodes/FOX)
Whoever finally assumes control of the dynasty will have to navigate a tangled web of intrigue and subplots – as will we viewers. Sibling rivalry! Terminal illness! Drug money! Blackmail! Child abuse! Interracial marriage! Men kissing men! Murder! And this is in the first hour! Daniels will have no problem finding plotlines to pursue, but it's a lot to take in and choppy in some places; hopefully the audience can hang on for the wild ride.

A predominantly African American primetime soap opera. Tyler Perry is making it work with The Haves and the Have Nots. 50 Cent, who is almost never at a loss for something to say, is slamming Empire because its marketing images look similar to the ones for his Starz series Power? Negro, please. When a series features a strong male and female lead, it sorta makes sense to picture them together. And while comedies or dramas infused with music haven't made an impact since – well, since Glee (conversely, anybody here remember Smash?), ABC is showing signs of a breakthrough with its delightful Monty Pythonesque romp Galavant, so perhaps the timing is right for Empire to (back)beat the odds.

Here's what we know: FOX is projecting this as its biggest can't-miss hit in years, ordering 13 episodes in an era where usually eight is enough and banking on the show's big names and Daniels' proven storytelling skills to take the day. Win or lose, at least we're guaranteed a few months of great music...and staring at Howard.

On the Big Glowing Box 1-10 remote: eight (8) clicks.