Pilots always suck. It is a rule. There are exceptions to rules of course, but generally pilots are never as good as you hope them to be. It’s because of their function, to introduce a world, characters, stakes and the like and to do so well enough to bring people back for more. They’re usually rife with plotlines, characters, actors, who will get dropped later as the show finds its rhythm and decides to start shedding some of its excess weight. But until further down the line shows don’t really know what they’re going to be, but Empire seems to get it. The pilot is smooth and certain enough to balance the harder to handle elements of its music, its characters and the soap opera they’re living in.
Danny Strong and Lee Daniels had a few things in mind when it came to Empire: King Lear, The Lion in Winter and Dynasty. As hard as it is to make this work, blending Shakespeare with a hip hop enterprise and a black Dynasty, the pilot proves that they knew what they were doing.
To combine this with a musical is even more ambitious, but Empire goes there, using music produced by Timbaland (which is later released on iTunes). Though Fox has gone the musical route before this is a bit different from the throwbacks the Glee cast came up with, music written specifically for the show. And no one’s bursting into song spontaneously either, instead using performances, recording sessions and the like to facilitate it. The pilot opens in Empire’s recording studio (aboard Lucious’ boat) where he encourages one of the studio’s young artists (Veronika Bozeman) to sing more emotionally. It’s our first glimpse of the world of Empire, traveling to the deck, overflowing with people in the midst of a party.
It’s also our first look at Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the patriarch of the family looking to maintain Empire’s upward trajectory. He’s the biggest cipher of the premiere, even as other characters become more clear as the episode continues. We know he knows music, and takes it seriously, and we know by the episode’s end that his decision to finally name a successor is compelled by an ALS diagnosis that gives him only a few years left to live, Terrence Howard plays him well, capturing his arrogance and pride while also making him close to charming (but only when he and Taraji P. Henson are together). Lucious himself is a familiar figure, the father who is perhaps more respected than loved, and even perhaps more hated. But he holds power that makes him impossible to write off, and now he’s offering that power to one of his sons. He’s supposedly left behind his harder days of drug dealing, but the pilot sees him killing longtime friend Bunkie to apparently neutralize a threat. What that threat is (something to do with photos of Bunkie with someone named Sean Johnson) is kind of confusing, but now Bunkie’s dead, and that’s definitely going to cause problems.
Then there’s Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious’ ex-wife, fresh out of prison and back to claim what’s hers. She sacrificed seventeen years of her life after being caught in a drug bust that also happened to get Empire started. Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you Henson is the best thing about the show, imbuing Cookie with an equal amount of confidence, vulnerability and grit, and Henson gets the most to work with in the pilot episode that sees her obnoxiously leaving prison but near tears when she reunites with son Jamal, the only one of her kids who ever visited her. Flashbacks scattered throughout the episode illuminate the days pre-Empire, and they do absolutely nothing for Lucious (who looks even worse than he does in the present) though it gives nuance to Cookie, particularly her relationship with Jamal in which she’s the only support he has against a homophobic Lucious, who at one point (in what’s a horrifying scene) dumps Jamal in a trashcan for wearing his mother’s clothes only to be taken out by Cookie, who’s ready to fight Lucious herself for what he’s done. In less-experienced hands Cookie would be a caricature, a painful stereotype who would overwhelm the show and everyone in it. Instead Cookie’s the opposite, an electrifying and even cohesive presence (who gets all the best lines), and though Lucious calling her the “heart and soul” of Empire is probably not that genuine, Cookie may very well be that for the show. She’s back to put her family back together, which means developing relationships with her children, which isn’t going to be so simple.
With the exception of Jamal (Jussie Smollett), whose struggle with his father’s homophobia and reluctance to turn his talent into a business venture, the other two Lyons’ men aren’t that well-defined. As individuals, they’re hard to pin down, even if their feelings for their parents are more clear (begrudging love and respect for Lucious, indifference toward cookie). Andre (Trai Byers) spends the episode scheming with his wife (Kaitlin Doubleday) to turn his parents and brothers against one another so he can take control of the company. Jamal being gay takes him out of the running so that leaves Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) who drinks, smokes and disappoints his father by not taking his work, or anything else, seriously.
While Cookie and Jamal’s relationship sells itself easily in the pilot, the same is true of Jamal and Hakeem. Both are content to ignore Andre (can’t blame them there) and are in the habit of collaborating with one another both personally and musically.Both are inhibited by Lucious’ expectations, but only Hakeem has any chance of having their father’s approval. This doesn’t seem to have hindered their relationship at all until now, but by pilot’s end there’s a line drawn between them as the battle begins between their warring parents to see which of them will rise to stardom first. The potential for the destruction of their relationship is part of Empire‘s strongest elements: its focus on the family at the center.
When Kevin Reilly left Fox, after having been a proud pusher of more diverse programming, the difference became clear. Even before that, Fox was not a fan of keeping solid programming around, but the network has poured an incredible amount of money into this show (each episode costs more than $3 million to produce) and it shows. It’s reassuring to see Empire existing on Fox’s lineup, created and starring black actors and musicians and getting the kind of promotion that proves the network’s interest in making this show happen, which could prove to others that shows with black leads can do well. You’d think this would have already occurred to people, now that we’re in a post-Scandal era, but hey. As of this review’s publishing, Empire was declared Fox’s highest rated premiere since 2012, and god willing the show will maintain its stylish and splashy dramatics and its ratings.
- Becky: “‘Scuse you. I’m back here.” More Becky please.
- Jamal about his parents: “Hakeem, they both crazy. Shoot, I bet Dad was in the Illuminati.”
- Lucious: “Don’t say nothing bad about Dr. King.”
- Everything Cookie says is golden. If I put it all here this review would be thousands of words long. Favorites include: “Pretty white girls always are [brilliant]. Even when they ain’t”, “Don’t you ‘baby’ me you two faced bastard”
- Jamal watching Hakeem record, all proud, gave me warm fuzzies.
- Daniels and Strong wrote the pilot, but the showrunner is Ilene Chaiken, and we’ll have to wait to see if she can maintain what the pilot gave us.
- Fun fact: Empire ties with How to Get Away With Murder for this season’s highest rated debut.