Kym King, guest reviewer
I was excited, just like anyone else, when FOX decided to launch a new show with a diverse cast; set in the world of hip hop, drugs, and the African American community, Empire premiered with amazing ratings. After the premiere of the first episode I was, for lack of a better word, a bit underwhelmed. With a cast like Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, and Gabourey Sidibe, I was expecting…well I don’t know what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t this stereotypical hot mess I came across.
Terrence Howard portrays father and head of Empire records Lucious Lyon. Diagnosed with ALS, he is faced with figuring out who to leave his company to once he succumbs to his terminal illness. Cue action, drama, and ex-wife Cookie Lyon (portrayed by Taraji P. Henson), who is released from jail and wants to stake her claim in the company that she helped build. Henson is definitely the show stealer and the one to watch, proving why she is an A-list actress, despite the awful 70s Blaxploitation-style wardrobe that she was put in (and she isn’t the only one, as Howard dons clothes and hair that makes it seem like his character’s name should be Sweet Daddy instead of Lucious). In the pilot we are also introduced to the Lyons children: eldest son Andre, the well-educated CFO of Empire who will do anything to have the company left to him; Jamal Lyon, the middle child and black sheep, an out gay man living with his boyfriend, who just wants his dad to accept him and sing his songs (his voice is killer); and youngest son Hakeem, the rapper in the family with monster talent and a monster ego to match (portrayed by Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett, and Bryshere Gray respectively). Even Malik Yoba joins the cast as Vernon Turner longtime friend and chairman of Empire (and yes ladies he is still as sexy as his New York Undercover days). Despite the bad clothes, stereotypical set up, and predictable plot, I was intrigued. I really wanted to love this show just as much as I love Starz’s’ Power (another show that grew on me over time). But between a murder, Cookie’s unexpected prison release, the drama with the sons, and the musical numbers splashing in, it seemed like Empire has too many storylines going on at once.
The one other saving grace of the pilot episode, besides Taraji’s performance, was the music. The music on the series is incredible, and with super producer Timbaland taking production lead in the music department, I shouldn’t have expected anything less. For days I have been humming the ballads and googling full performances of the hip hop numbers. With a show focused on the music industry, I don’t know why I was surprised.
I decided to hope for the best and wait to write my review until after the second episode. Maybe it’ll get better, maybe it’ll pick up, and maybe the wardrobe will at least be a smidge more in this century. I must admit I am pleasantly surprised. This episode seemed less sloppy and a bit more put together. The show is still suffering from the over-cramping of too many stories in a single episode, however, it did pick up the pace a bit and was a little less predictable. The one problem, alluded to in the first episode and ever so much more obvious in the second, is the manipulation of Andre’s Caucasian wife to pit his brothers against each other, in the hopes that they will fall apart and Lucious will leave the company to him. The idea that a successful black man can’t achieve or maintain his success without someone of another race somehow being behind that success is exhausting, and I thought that this show would go beyond it. It’s disappointing. Also, it is revealed that Andre suffers from bipolar disorder and has been skipping his meds – a fact his wife is using to keep him under her thumb. Meanwhile, youngest son Hakeem is playing up his bad boy image and embarrassing himself all across the board and to all races. FOX is really playing up that rapper stereotype, aren’t they?
Jamal struggles with trying to get his father to accept his sexuality, and I must admit that Empire is shining a light on the stigma that homosexuality still carries today in the black community, and that needs to be said. Taraji Henson once again wows and shows her range as an actress, and even Terrence Howard steps up to the plate and shows that despite Lucious’ backstabbing, illegal activities, and homophobia, he actually has some depth, baited by Cookie into a speech about how rappers use hip hop as a way to shine a light as to what’s going on in the communities they come from and helping them make a positive change.
The music once again steals the show and gets you hooked. I will be staying with this show, since despite some fumbles it still has a place on network television, and the diversity it brings is just too positive to pass on. Slowly, Empire is getting it right, even if the wardrobe is still all wrong.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 9/8c on FOX
Kym King is a self proclaimed hot mess, mom, and bibliophile. She blogs over at sexandthesubmissive.blogspot.com, and you can follow her on Instagram and Twitter @IamKymK