After all the pre-game hype surrounding Empire, the actual show was bound to be a bit of a letdown. I mean, what series could live up to the expectations foisted upon it, with every casting decision reported like it was a Star Wars offshoot, and the hype surrounding Lee Daniels bringing in superproducer Timbaland to oversee the music on this hip-hop soap opera? But this opening salvo isn’t just a mere disappointment; this is the engine stalling and catching fire before it even makes the first lap.
The shame of it all is that the elements were all in place for this to be something interesting. The story is pitched as a hip-hop King Lear, with Terrence Howard as Luscious, a Diddy-style mogul diagnosed with ALS, and aiming to bestow control of the company (Empire Entertainment, of course) to one of his three sons. But along comes his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), released after 17 years in prison for drug dealing, and looking to take back half of the organization she helped found with her ill-gotten earnings. And dangling around the edges of this power struggle are the kids: Jamal, the uber-talented R&B singer hiding his homosexuality lest it hurt his career; Andre, the rapper squandering his abilities on, as Jamal puts it, “bitches and booze”; and Hakeem, the son with all the business sense, and none of the killer instinct.
The raw material, though, is squandered by knuckleheaded writing and some uniquely misguided casting decisions. The men playing Luscious and Cookie’s three sons are complete blanks, unable to give a unique spin or even something memorable to make us want to see more of the characters. Even an actor as talented as Howard doesn’t seem to know whether to play Luscious as the talented braggart, the sly devil, or the wounded monarch. He seems to try for an amalgam of all three and looks downright lost as he tries to emote. Only Henson grabs a hold of the juicy role she was handed, and bites down hard. She’s impossible to ignore in every scene because you never can tell what she’s going to do next.
The problems of the script run even deeper. Daniels and his co-creator Danny Strong have never proven themselves to be master dramatists (this is the pair that gave us The Butler after all) but you have to hope that network notes and edits were behind some of the wonkier choices here. The backstory folded into the hour is entirely unnecessary to move the plot forward, and they completely fumble what could have been an interesting dramatic wrinkle in the relationship between Luscious and his longtime bodyguard Bunkie.
Their friendship is already on the rocks as Bunkie keeps bugging his boss for a $25,000 advance. But it goes all awry when the bodyguard shows up at Luscious’s house waving a gun around and making idle threats about revealing how the two were behind the murder of some rival drug dealers back in the day. The scene quickly cuts to commercial and then… is never returned to again. By the time the two see each other again, it is (for some reason) underneath a bridge where Luscious confronts his friend and shoots him, after giving him the groaningly bad line, “The only thing that could come between us is a bullet.”
This is but one example of how completely dumbed-down almost everything in this episode was. It plays just like the network TV version of the hip-hop community that it is, as if viewed through the lens of a tween in Kansas. That goes down to the details surrounding each scene: the gaudy outfits each character hangs in (Cookie has a thing for huge fur coats, and Luscious goes for a kind of low-rent Hugh Hefner vibe) and the laughably tawdry set design. And let’s not forget the music featured throughout, which feels, at best, five years behind the creative curve leaving me to wonder if Timbaland has completely lost his Midas touch.
The biggest issue that Daniels and Strong have to answer for is how Jamal is treated and portrayed. During one egregious flashback, a young version of the character walks into his parents’ living room wearing some of his mom’s clothes and a pair of her high heels. That’s their signifier for his gayness at a young age? The script writers at least rein that impulse in for the modern day version and do make him the most musically gifted member of the family, but they undercut him at every turn with his parents referring to him as a “sissy,” a “faggot,” and “a gay” at various points. This may be a fumbling attempt to address the stigma still placed on homosexuals in the African-American community, but it feels downright offensive.
In spite of all my frustrations and reservations with the pilot episode, I daresay that Daniels, Strong, and everyone else involved could pull themselves out of this mire. The pieces are in play for some high-pitched drama with Cookie looking to make a star of Jamal and push him into the CEO’s chair at Empire, and Hakeem’s plan to pit his brothers against each other so he can swoop in and grab the crown. Add to it the stunt casting of Courtney Love, Macy Gray, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. for future installments and we could be heading straight toward high-pitched camp territory. We’ll allow Empire to continue, but they’d damn well better start delivering the goods.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.