If too much network TV seems green-lit on the condition that the showrunners will take as few risks as possible, the narrative intuition of Empire must be the opposite: to leave absolutely no potential subplot, shady character alliance, or sociopolitical critique unturned. As much is apparent in the show’s pilot, wherein Empire Records CEO Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) announces he’s taking the company public, is diagnosed with ALS, murders his best friend, and grapples with the sudden reappearance of his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). Cookie spent 17 years in federal prison so Lucious could maintain his then-fledgling rap career, going on to produce his seminal debut with money made from the drugs they sold together; as a newly free woman, she rips into his boardroom meetings with ravenous aplomb, claiming equal ownership of all things Empire and promoting herself swiftly to president of the label’s A&R.
Co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong aren’t chasing epic soap confections like Dallas just for a nostalgic thrill, but instead to harness their genre of choice’s inherent ludicrousness, adding up to an overstuffed funhouse-mirror précis of the modern pop-music business. Anyone who claims otherwise is holding Empire to a standard of verisimilitude to which the series isn’t remotely interested in pandering; Daniels and Strong make a point of painting their overarching saga in such a flurry of swift, saucy plot strokes that individual episodes are practically spoiler-proof.
Unlike Lucious and their three sons, Cookie emerges from prison uncorrupted by success and the only character strong enough to mount a proper challenge to Lucious’s glitzed-out hypocrisy. Hakeem, the youngest (Bryshere Gray, a.k.a. Philly rapper Yazz the Greatest), is the apple of his father’s eye, but Cookie maintains that their middle child, gay singer-songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett), is his true musical heir. It’s a tension that becomes an all-out feud, as Luscious—homophobic to the point of sociopathy—isolates Jamal despite the kid’s screamingly obvious talent. (That Jamal and Hakeem are turned against one another by their parents despite their otherwise healthy relationship is one of the show’s many subtle comments on its crooked-timber pop milieu.) If Empire takes dead aim at any one thing, it may well be the bigotry accommodated by the rap business, but given the show’s operatic sensibility, Lucious and Cookie can’t just embody enlightened-versus-bigoted perspectives on their gay son without also pushing different concepts of what mainstream pop can and should sound like. Inevitably, these battles see them reminiscing over their old creative partnership and realizing they’re still in love with one another, patched together in bizarre, quickie flashbacks that look as if the lens is varnished with Goldschläger.
It will surprise none who chafed at The Butler’s mile-a-minute screenplay to see Daniels and Strong thriving within the confines of the weekly installment. True to Empire’s arch maximalism, Lucious’s musical handiwork isn’t actually heard by the audience until the second episode, which kicks off to a track (from 2002) called “What the DJ Spins”—designed to sound like the most derivative Top 40 track early-aughts money could then buy, complete with an unintelligible, but nonetheless shout-y, vaguely Southern refrain. The music video—a fusillade of extreme close-ups on Lucious’s face and the top-heavy supermodel riding on the passenger side of his muscle car, crosscut with corny time-lapsed smash zooms as he careens through late-night Manhattan—is watched by its star as he runs on a treadmill some 13 years later. After laboring across Empire’s pilot to establish Lucious’s hitmaking genius (to say nothing of the dramatic stakes facing him) with stone-seriousness, Daniels and Strong promptly go to work shredding it; nothing can be taken for granted in Empire. Mega-producer Timbaland’s musical consultancy may well be the show’s secret weapon, imbuing the proceedings with a bass-boosted palette that teeters brilliantly between parody and the genuine article—which is, unto itself, a pretty audacious comment on an industry that thrives on sheer one-upsmanship.
With the breakout gusto of a golden-era Hollywood musical, Empire shrugs off suspension of disbelief; instead, it dazzles with the fidelity of its performances (musical or otherwise) and the Dionysian cynicism of its plot machinations. As an inquiry into the hidden vagaries of modern celebrity, the series isn’t subtle about the hollowness of Lucious’s prestige—or much of anything else. When a drunken rant by Hakeem—wherein the pampered daddy’s boy calls President Obama, of all things, a “sellout”—goes viral, damage control includes an angry phone call from the White House, with Lucious pleading: “Come on, Barack, you know you don’t have to use that kind of language…hello?!” The separate spheres of the label’s day-to-day operation allow the show’s writers a variety of dramatic modes, making Empire schizophrenic by design: Seven minutes at a time, the series hopscotches between being a lurid hood saga, a fiery inside-baseball drama, and a world-weary backstage comedy. A clue can be found in the telltale, gold-plated Kehinde Wiley paintings adorning the walls of the House of Lyon: Wiley repurposes 18th-century portraiture to foreground thugged-out black men, both celebrating a beloved aesthetic while indicting its every underpinning. Empire coasts with the chutzpah of a series that knows exactly what it wants to say and how to say it, leaving viewers no quarter except to pick their jaws up off the floor between commercial breaks.