Trying to parse out what was the most ridiculous part of this episode of Empire is a fool’s errand. There’s just too damn much to choose from. There’s the homeless gibbering drunk who goes by the name “Ol’ Salty.” Lucious referring to the head of a competing record company as a “hairy dingleberry.” Lucious giving a sad child, wannabe rapper outside a funeral home $100 and telling him to “come see me when you’re ready.” Cookie calling Anika a “bougie ho.” Cuba Gooding, Jr. showing up on the scene as a former songwriting associate of Lucious and Cookie’s, named Puma. The appearance of Naomi Campbell as Hakeem’s secret girlfriend who insists he call her “mama.”
Okay, that last one was more icky than ridiculous. But that should still give you a clear indication of what we were dealing with last night. The writers of this episode decided to (knowingly or unwittingly) ratchet things up in an attempt to push it over-the-top. They don’t quite reach the place that could pitch this show into the land of camp entertainment. It sure is a hoot to watch them try, though.
The tendrils of the plot are also getting more knotty as we go along, and it’s getting a little dizzying as a result. Cookie is trying to assert herself back into the company any way she can—first trying to woo other songwriters to craft that big hit for Jamal, and then leaning on Puma for help. It backfires only because Lucious reminds them all that he owns the song and it would be perfect for John Legend’s new album. All the while, Cookie is trying to keep it secret that she snitched to the FBI about a crook from her past as leverage to get out of prison.
Meanwhile, Lucious is trying to keep his company afloat while his rival Berretti (played, as revealed in the upcoming episodes montage tacked on to the end, by Judd Nelson) pinches Kid Fo-Fo as a way to threaten his IPO. He also uses his eldest son Andre to lean on city hall for information about the investigation into a potential witness to Bunkie’s murder. If that weren’t enough, the ALS symptoms are apparently starting to kick in, much sooner than the doctor anticipated.
As for the kids, they are all gaming, in their own way, to topple their father from his seat of power. Andre picks at poor Hakeem’s insecurities to try and drive a wedge between his younger siblings. And Jamal, embarrassed by his father’s dismissal of his performance and determined to stand on his own two feet, decides to cut the purse strings connected to his father, but not before looking right into the camera and stating, “I’m going after his empire. I’m gonna take it.”
Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, and the rest of the team are just going to keep stuffing us with dramatic moments and scenes of wiry tension, or PG-13 lustiness until viewers are overstuffed and begging for mercy.
I think that the less seriously we take this show, the better equipped we’re going to be to survive this first season and beyond (it’s already been renewed for a second run, in case you hadn’t heard). The music shoehorned into each episode may have some pop to it, but everything else is soapy and sickly sweet. This isn’t the type of TV that’s going to snap up awards and gobs of critical accolades. This is the junk food that we chatter about at work around the break room, or over the cubicle walls. Fair warning: the sugar high is great, but the crash is a doozy.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.