After last week’s trainwreck of a pilot, anything would have been an improvement. But, let’s give credit where credit is due, because Lee Daniels and co. came out firing on both cylinders with this week’s Empire. They might not have gotten all the way to their destination, but they’re well on their way.
I think it is, in part, because he knows he has a soap opera on his hands. Sure, it’s one steeped in racial politics, with references to the Solange/Jay-Z elevator incident—one where President Obama curses out and hangs up on the CEO of a hip-hop empire, but a soap opera all the same. And they certainly emphasize that fact, punctuating big dramatic moments with musical swells and camera shots that linger on hard stares and heavy-lidded drunkenness.
Like a good prime time soap opera (the names Dynasty and Falcon Crest have been getting thrown around for a reason), Empire is now amping up its lurid side. Anika, Lucious’s lady friend, just happens to pop out of a room in lingerie when Cookie comes calling, and Andre’s wife helps “convince” her husband to make his doctor’s appointments by putting on a makeshift bib and dropping to her knees.
The real sensationalist action comes with the show peppering in little bits of melodrama throughout, those little tasty morsels to keep us returning week in and week out to see how it all unfolds. Will Andre’s bipolar disorder and his aversion to taking his meds cause serious problems? Will Lucious’s assistant reveal the news that her boss has ALS after finding his meds? Who is this federal agent that insists that Cookie testify before a grand jury? Is Lucious pinning the murder of Bunky on a gangster going to start an all-out war? When will Jamal publicly come out, and will it happen while he sings his silly song about how “everybody has a closet”? They are turning us into salivating dogs with all these little bell rings.
What’s going to keep me heading back to the well that is Empire is, of course, Taraji P. Henson, but equally as satisfying is the tart dialogue the writers are giving all these characters. Cookie gets the best lines, like when she goes toe-to-toe with Kid .44, an Empire rapper embroiled in controversy: “Now who is this bitch?” he asks. Her response: “Someone who would’ve never gave birth to your ugly ass.” Everyone gets their verbal darts to throw—or in the case of Kid .44—a chance to look like a moron when he compares himself to Gandhi for his music inspiring a mall shooting. My favorite zinger, though, came when Cookie told her ex that he should drop his “yellow bitch,” and Anika replied, “Yeah, he probably will, when I’m your age. Except by then he’ll be a hundred and… ten?” Meow!
The show also does fairly well bringing some heartfelt emotion into the show. It was nice to see Jamal and Hakeem looking out for each other and mocking their parents’ efforts to pit them against one another. And before Anika came and burst the bubble, you could see that there’s still some real love left between Cookie and Lucious. They still have yet to find that perfect balance between the relatable and the outrageous, or have yet to hit on the secret that you shouldn’t be afraid to throw out of one of those qualities entirely. The success of this series (in the eyes of this critic anyway) depends on it.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.