Empire of the Blind
In yesterday’s review of Wayward Pines, it was noted that the 2015 Grand Champeen of ridiculous TV camp roles is Oscar nominee Terrence Howard. About Howard we know many things: we know, for example, that he loves his own reflection, and does not love women and their dirty, filthy vaginas. We also know that he loves the hard street beats of Mr. Barry Manilow, and does not love that horrible crazy rap music. This was a surprising enough revelation when rap music was the vector that delivered him to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but it’s even odder when you consider that rap is what has given him the biggest success of his career with the breakout smash hit Empire.
It is on Empire that Howard portrays the hip-hop empresario/media mogul Lucious Lyon, whose diagnosis with ALS (which he suffers far more egregiously and hammily than did Lou Gehrig) leads him to the decision to pit his three sons against one another for the right to run Empire Entertainment when he’s gone. The candidates are oldest son Andre, who has the business sense and the ambition but lacks any musical talent and is cursed with bipolar disorder (which Trai Byers plays with Jeckyll-and-Hyde gusto); middle child Jamal, who is a musical genius but doesn’t care about business and is despised by his father for being gay; and youngest son Hakeem, who is a talented and driven rapper, but spends all his time living the high life. Yes, it’s King Lear in Coogis, and just in case you didn’t get it, Jamal hangs a lampshade from it in the very first episode. It’s just that kind of a show.
Things are complicated by the return of the boys’ mother, Cookie, played with relentless vivacity by Taraji P. Henson. Lucious is at the center of the story, but Cookie is the most entertaining character, and, when it comes to cases, the best reason to watch the show. As played by Henson, she seems to be the only one who has figured out what the show is — an overblown soap opera stuffed with money and crammed with camp, in the style of prime-time dramas of the ’80s like Falcon Crest and Dynasty. She alone really seems to be rolling with it and taking all the absurdity — and there is absurdity to spare — in stride instead of giving herself an ulcer trying to take it all seriously, which is what Howard and most of the rest of the cast are doing. There aren’t really supposed to be shows like this anymore; this is, after all, the age of ‘quality’ televisions. But despite its pretensions of being The Sopranos gone hip-hop, it’s a pure soapy throwback, and the cast and crew do themselves little credit by pretending it’s anything else.
You certainly can’t accuse Empire of being boring. Every single episode, there’s some moment of high-camp insanity worthy of brain-damaged Shakespeare: Lucious murders his longtime flunky over a blackmail scheme; Cookie misguidedly arranges a hit on an old drug crony; Andre forces his wife to seduce a wheelchair-bound pervert (played by M. Emmet Walsh!); Hakeem catches his tween-pop girlfriend frenching a supermodel; and, in perhaps the series’ most high-flown moment of lunacy — a moment it obviously thinks is important enough dramatically to flash back to over and over — a young Lucious deposits toddler Jamal in a trash can for wearing heels! It’s all completely ridiculous, and when it comes time for Lucious’ greatest rival to appear on screen, it comes as no surprise that he’s played by Judd Nelson, since the 1980s America’s go-to guy for shitty actors with an incredibly high opinion of themselves.
It doesn’t really help that Empire — created by Lee Daniels, who should know better, but developed by honky nerd icon Danny Strong — is set in the hip-hop world of 2015 but often comes across like a show that takes place sometime in the mid-’60s. More agile minds than mine have written about Empire‘s clumsy missteps in representing the rap game, but it can’t hurt to list just a few:
* The central motivating factor in much of Lucious and Cookie’s story is the fact that Empire Entertainment was initially financed with drug money. This motivates them to commit all sorts of nefarious deeds, up to and including murder, to keep this ‘scandal’ from being revealed. In fact, plenty of big hip-hop figures and outfits, from Jay-Z and Sean Combs to Dr. Dre and Suge Knight, started empires with narcotics cash, but even if it could be proven, nobody really cares.
* The issue of Jamal’s homosexuality would probably play a lot better in the 1990s than it would today. Hip-hop certainly has continued to have its problems with homophobia, and without a doubt there are black men of Lucious’ age who still think of gay men as abominable sissies, but Jamal is portrayed here as more of a poppy R&B crooner, and in that arena, fans are far more forgiving. There’s zero chance that his sexuality would be seen as a detriment in most areas, and certainly not in the realm of record sales.
* Related to the above is the general sensation that the show tries to create, in which — despite it being established that this is a reality in which Barack Obama is president — the very idea of a black CEO is so intensely threatening to white America that Lucious must always be on his guard, and keep his family strictly in line, lest The Man bring everything crashing down around him. Again, this is the era of Jay-Z and Oprah; no one’s going to string his son up for getting an MBA. (This is inconsistently applied, of course; Lucious completely flips out when his middle son jeopardizes the whole company by being gay in 2015, but his youngest pees in a fancy restaurant and doesn’t so much as get a ticket.)
* As noted in the link above, the show doesn’t seem to be very in tune with how the music industry works, from the CEO’s ridiculous over-involvement in the careers and lives of every one of his artists to Howard’s bizarre late-’60s conk haircut to the fact that, for obvious reasons, every hit that Empire Entertainment (which, despite being a billion-dollar company, doesn’t seem to have its own logo) sounds like it was produced by Timbaland. For that matter, it doesn’t have much of a grasp on how business works, either; Lucious is attempting to take it public in an IPO but tells investors at a party that it’s a close, tightly knit family company run by one person, which is exactly the last thing a potential shareholder wants to hear. He’s also hiding his illness because he has to have a clean bill of health for the IPO to go through, which in the real world, is not in any way a requirement. For a show that plays in front of a backdrop of hip-hop and high finance, Empire doesn’t seem to know much about either.
* It has Courtney Love in it. As a soul singer. Who does a cover of “Take Me to the River”.
And yet, with all that, Empire is…well, it’s a hell of a good time. It’s almost hypnotically watchable, not just despite these ludicrous flaws, but because of them. I could watch Henson chewing up the scenery for hours, but there are plenty of other fun performances; even the ones that aren’t very good are a hoot to watch in context. It’s a show that will have you hitting the pause button constantly to ask “What the hell did I just see?”, but just as quickly hitting the play button to see what happens next. It’s got a veteran soap opera’s mastery of the proairetic sequence, the one-action-after-another plot-heaviness that comes on so strong that you don’t have time to ask whether what you just watched made any sense before the next crazy development happens. This is the hallmark of that type of once-vanished prime time drama; you know even as you’re looking at it that it’s not very good, but you can’t turn away from it until it’s over.
Empire has proven to be a huge hit, and with a second season guaranteed, we’ll find out if it can keep up this mad pace for much longer. My critical instincts keep telling me the show isn’t much, but the rest of me keeps checking the internet to see when season 2 begins.