Scott F. Evans
Lee Daniels’ Empire premiered last week to strong ratings and generally positive reviews. The family drama (built around the music industry) was a huge gamble for Fox. But judging from the initial reception, it was a worthwhile one.
Fox’s most significant gamble is that Empire is a Black show. Not a show that just happens to have a Black lead (with a predominantly White or diverse cast), but a show where all the major players… so far… are Black. Sure there are a few non-Black faces sprinkled throughout the cast, but all of the main characters are African-American.
An all-Black show isn’t necessarily that big a deal; there have been Black sitcoms running regularly since Amos ‘n Andy. And all-Black casts on ‘reality’ shows are the norm, not the exception. However, a show that’s not a sitcom or ‘reality’, coupled with a time slot on a major network… suddenly Empire becomes sort of a big deal. The last Black drama broadcast by a major network was City of Angels, and that was 15 years ago.
Empire’s two leads are the backbone of the show. Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson couldn’t be more perfectly cast as Lucious and Cookie Lyons. Those character names tell you exactly what kind of show this is. Howard’s Lucious plays flawlessly into the actor’s strengths. There’s not an actor working that plays “nickel-slick” as convincingly as Howard. He brings a guileful tone to the role that is both repellant and magnetic. He’s charming and absolutely untrustworthy. Henson’s Cookie taps into the performer’s energy, and Daniels gives her free reign to be great. Henson is somehow able to completely chew scenery, but it never feels forced or over the top. The roles had to be written with these two actors in mind, because the fit is impeccable. You can’t not watch them.
The rest of the cast is pretty solid so far. Jussie Smollet, as middle son Jamal, brings a sincerity to the show that almost feels out of place. Trai Byers is equally good as the straight-laced eldest son Andre. Both of these relative newcomers show a lot of potential, and help keep Empire reasonably grounded. The only weak link is Bryshere Gray as the youngest son Hakeem. This is the rapper’s first attempt at acting, and unfortunately it shows. He looks the part and can perform the rhymes, but that’s about as far as he’s able to stretch.
There’s going to be a lot of undue pressure on Empire. It will be unfairly scrutinized, as African-American audiences project all of their needs onto the show. It won’t be enough for Empire to just be a piece of well made (so far) frivolous entertainment. For some, it’ll have to be significant and representative… noble and powerful… transcendent and affirming. But Empire has no interest in meeting these lofty ideals. Nor should it have to.
Beyond the performances, the show’s main strength is that it knows exactly what it is. It knows that it’s not a credible analysis of the music business, or some high-minded examination of the breakdown of a Black Family Unit. It’s a trashy nighttime soap opera… period. The next few weeks will determine if Empire has legs, but it’s strong out of the gate. Give it a shot.