By Chaz Lipp
With Fox’s runaway hit Empire bowing to big ratings with its second season premiere, anyone who hasn’t jumped aboard the train can get caught up with Empire: The Complete First Season on Blu-ray (via 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment). Lee Daniels (director of the 2013 hit The Butler) and Danny Strong co-created the series, which tracks the glamorous and dangerous lifestyle of the Lyon family, led by music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). Lucious is the CEO of Empire Entertainment, a powerhouse R&B and hip hop record label. His life is turned upside down by a diagnosis of ALS, coupled with the prison release of his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson).
One of the aspects of Empire that makes it so much fun is that we’re never allowed to settle into any easy sympathizing for these characters. Lucious’ ALS might initially cast him as something of a victim, but his ruthless and sometimes seriously criminal business practices make things more complex. Add in the facts that he’s bitterly homophobic toward his gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and racially prejudiced against the white wife (Kaitlin Doubleday) of his son Andre (Trai Byers) and it becomes harder to like the guy. Yet we respond to his drive and ambition as he attempts (with sometimes compromised success) to juggle all the craziness in his life. He’s also engaged to Anika (Grace Gealey), who is none too pleased with the intrusion of Cookie into their lives and affairs. After 17 years in prison, away from the three sons she barely knows, she wants what she believes to be her fair share of Empire.
The writers do an effective job of maintaining forward momentum, increasing dramatic tension with every episode. The youngest of Lucious and Cookie’s sons, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), never really knew his mom at all. His brash overconfidence seems to mask his emotional insecurities. All three of the Lyons brothers are deeply involved in the company business; both Jamal and Hakeem are recording artists, while Andre handles the business side. It’s Andre who becomes an increasing problem as his bipolar disorder flares up uncontrollably after he ceases taking his meds. All of that only barely sets up the Lyons family drama as the dozen season one episodes unfold.
The three-disc Blu-ray sports great DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mixes, definitely a plus given the abundance of music sequences (disconcertingly, somehow it seems like every Empire artist rehearsal or recording session sounds like a fully-produced, finished track!). Special features are a bit light (there’s a “Platinum Edition” of the first season already due in November), with each disc boasting extended music performances. There’s also commentary for the pilot episode, several music videos, and a pair of short behind-the-scenes featurettes.
Season two of Empire premiered on Wednesday, September 23. Keep up with all the latest on the show’s official website.
Empire images: Fox Television