By Antonio Dileo
Before cable television, Direct TV, Netflix, and other streaming services, four major networks delivered episodic programming, including the crowning nighttime soap operas that dished up stories of family greed, back-handedness, murder, cat-fighting, and general excess. The breakout Fox show Empire brings all this back with an entertaining bang that has viewers waiting for more even after an exhausting hour that pulls no punches.
Joining the likes Dallas’ J.R. Ewing, Dynasty’s Blake Carrington,Falcon Crest’s Angela Channing, and Melrose Place’s Dr. Michael Mancini is Lucious Lyon as one of those characters you love to hate. Lyon, played with convincing and sometimes subtle wickedness by Oscar-nominated Terrence Howard (Hustle and Flow), is the mogul of a music and entertainment company set to go public on the New York Stock Exchange. His endeavor is hindered when he is diagnosed with ALS and he must appoint one of his three sons as his successor. His criminal past soon begins to come back to haunt him when his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is released from prison. She reminds everyone that she helped build Empire Entertainment and is back to get her fair share of it. Lucious’ crime-ridden past begins to resurface, starting with his old friend Bunkie (Antoine McKay) returning to blackmail him.
Empire’s first season follows the Lyon family’s rivalry for wealth and power. The potboiling storylines portray the conflict and complexity of the characters and the family. Flashbacks into the Lyon family past effectively show how past decisions led to the current situation. This deepens the storylines. We see eldest son Andre’s (Trai Byers) drive to rise to the top of Empire and his own battle with bipolar disorder along with Lucious’ early years in Philadelphia as a struggling musician and songwriter while selling drugs. We also gain insight into middle son Jamal’s (Jussie Smollett) hurtful rejection by his father for being gay and his yearning for his father’s approval, which drives him to break out as an artist on his own.
Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, who were behind 2013’s critically-acclaimed film The Butler, the plotlines, strong back stories, and massive talent attached to the show, coupled with cinematic and musical flair, have brought back the good, old-fashioned nighttime dramas. For those who fondly remember the sniping and cat fights between Krystal and Alexis Carrington, Empire will not disappoint you with the Cookie versus Anika (aka “Boo Boo Kitty”) feud. There is ample fashion, glitz, and bling as well.
However, music is the core of Empire and the show does a great job of integrating it into the story. Two of the main characters are portrayed by real-life recording artists. Bryshere Y. Gray, who plays youngest son Hakeem, raps under the name Yazz The Greatest, while Jussie Smollett is a singer who recently signed with Columbia Records. The soundtrack debuted at number one on Billboard‘s Top 200 album chart. The show also hosts an array of musical guest stars from hip-hop and R&B, from Snoop Dogg and Jennifer Hudson to soul legends like Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight. Courtney Love is fantastic in her recurring role as multi-platinum, drug-addicted rock star Elle Dallas.
With its triumphant first season (averaging 13 million viewers per week; 17 million tuned in for its season finale), not to mention a strong social media presence which Fox started prior to the show’s premiere, Empire looks like it will continue to sizzle while growing an even wider audience. The show has a formula that, at its center, is telling a story that captures the core of human greed and how it can motivate and blind individuals in their quest for glory and riches.
Empire Images: FOX