Mar 19, 2015

TV Retrospective: "Empire" - Season 1

If there is one thing that will look peculiar come the end of 2015, it will be the growing success of Fox's music soap opera (known often as a hip-hopera). It isn't necessarily because the show appealed to a niche audience or was all that bad. In fact, there was plenty to like about it, but the show's initial unevenness from creator/director Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) suggested that this would be more camp than plot. Somewhere along the way of its first season, it became a fully realized vision of overdramatic characters, bizarre egos and some pretty catchy tunes. Empire is a show that announced itself much like protagonist Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) bringing his company to the public. If there's an appeal to the show, it's in the surprising way that it became one of Fox's unprecedented scripted hits. It wasn't perfect, but it sure was fun.
The series opens on a conventional premise. Lucious is hosting a party aboard his yacht. As the camera cuts to the interior, his children are performing songs by a piano. This is the first introduction to Lyon's empire, aptly called Empire Records. He wants to make it a family affair. However, there's a misleading factor to the opening in which it feels like everything will be sung. In truth, very little of the plot is progressed through songs, composed exclusively by Timbaland. However, what the show does from this moment on is pry into the intimate moments and unveil why these songs matter. What starts off as a playful ditty on a piano builds into a masterful song by the end of the season performed in front of an audience once the company has gone public. There's a lot of roads that had to be crossed to get there and boy were they complicated.
There's Lucious' own past, which hits a lot of shocking elements that stick true to the soap opera format. He has built his success as a rapper whose many problems include a gay son and his incurable ALS. It is why he plans to mentor one to run the company. Along the way, he coaches them through songs and deals with his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who went to jail to cover up for his problems. Along with a slew of guest stars that included Courtney Love, Cuba Gooding Jr., Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg, the show knew how to do everything excessively. Even its intimate emotions were saturated with big outbreaks, sometimes even through song. The show avoided being pretentious by going on Daniels' gift of pure id. 
Of course, what makes Emprie more than just a shocking "anything goes" series is that it explored taboo issues with some reverence. Topics such as ALS and homophobia in the rap community were constant topics that unfolded in honest ways. Characters had to make tough decisions that would influence their public image. It is the show's biggest success that even as everyone would put up a fight, they would do their best to smile for the camera. Empire was for all of them to prove that it was a family business. In a sense, it only helps that they're a dysfunctional batch that can produce a lot of quality work.
It isn't entirely clear why Empire was a runaway hit. In fact, it is one of very few shows on Fox or any of its competitors to have captured an increase of ratings. Similar shows such as Nashville that incorporated music and drama failed to maintain the energy. Could it be the high caliber cast? Maybe it was the fact that Cookie became a defiant TV icon whose sassy control lead to many outrageous moments. She was an empowering figure that perfectly matched Lucious' nuanced desire to control Empire. It even manages to ignore any major gaps in script logic thanks to just making cartoonish characters who are in fact very grounded. Things even become territorial and the prospect of power drives the final half of the season, especially as major reveals happen.
Empire is a show that definitely felt like a gamble simply by airing in January. After Fox failed to capture audiences with Red Band Society, anything seemed worthy. However, the highly produced show managed to become a ratings juggernaut likely thanks to playing on contemporary taboos in progressive ways with a cast that could draw the line between campy and serious acting. It could just be that Howard and Henson were Oscar-nominated caliber moving to TV. Still, the show was special because contrary to its similarities to soap operas or even Nashville, it was striving for something more. It wanted to entertain, shock and provide a soundtrack that fans have come to embrace. Even the weekly viewing allowed for new songs to crop up on iTunes in a move inspired by Fox's fading hit Glee
Empire ends with a shot of Lucious finally going to jail for a murder committed in the first episode. As he sands behind the bars, the moment feels vaguely reminiscent of Howard's breakout role in Hustle & Flow. In fact, a lot of the show's structure feels like that down to Henson also appearing in said film. In the film, the story ends with the music blaring through stereos and Howard's character becoming a sensation. As Lucious sits looking at the camera, he announces that he will be back. It is both a hokey moment and one that not only recalls Hustle & Flow, but takes it to the next level. The show will come back with a vengeance and more music. It is a sensation unlike any other because it took too many risks, which modern TV predominantly doesn't. For that, Empire is an applaud-worthy effort sure to only grow in popularity when it returns (presumably in the Fall).

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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