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Monitor: How Lee Daniels’ Empire is Hip Hop’s Answer to Game of Thrones

Aaron Yap watches the first three episodes of TV2’s Empire, and dissects how his new guilty pleasure successfully blends legitimate themes with soapy absurdities. 

If Fox’s Empire confirms one thing, it’s my suspicion that showrunner Lee Daniels should’ve done TV a long time ago. On the big screen, the producer/director has often been slapped with charges of excess from detractors like myself, who haven’t quite come around to his lurid, semi-campy style just yet.

Watch Shadowboxer, Precious and The Paperboy, and it’s quite evident that the words “restraint” or “subtlety” do not appear to exist in his cinematic vocabulary. Those sins, which practically feed every running minute of Empire, are much more forgivable and palatable in episodic, weekly 42-minute chunks.

Co-created with Danny Strong, who also wrote Daniels’ historical prestige biopic The Butler (which would’ve been better served as a miniseries), Empire allows Daniels’ inner Douglas Sirk to really let loose. By applying the primetime soap opera of Dynasty and Dallas to the gritty rags-to-riches hip hop framework of 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow, he’s found an ideal playground to showcase his strengths as a blustery, brazen melodramatist.

Empire isn’t great art. But three episodes deep, and it might be the most addictive, guiltiest pleasure of its type I’ve committed to since the VH1 cheerleader bitch-fest Hit the Floor. Call it hip hop’s Game of Thrones. There’s mad scheming, family scraps, timely industry satire, hot-button race issues and politics, and of course, murder. It’s all smashed into one big, bold, energetic slab of gloriously trashy TV that’s almost designed to be hoovered up the nose.

The pilot effectively tees up a season’s worth of conflicts that should spiral out of control in no time (it’s easy to see to why the show broke ratings records).

empire lyon

The series opens with record label boss and former gangbanger Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) being diagnosed with a fatal disease. He plans to take his multi-million dollar company Empire Entertainment public and pick one of his three sons to carry on his legacy. Problem is the boys, while each demonstrating potential, aren’t ready-made emperors just yet.

Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is the youngest Lyon. He possesses plenty of fire and raw talent, but requires constant guidance, being too distracted by “bitches and booze”. Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the middle Lyon, is the family’s true prodigy. A Reluctant Star™ deeply concerned with the “purity of his sound”, it’s Jamal’s homosexuality that doesn’t have his dad too stoked. The eldest, Andre (Trai Byers), suffers from bipolar disorder, but is a Wharton-educated suit displaying the business intelligence that the other two lack.

EMPIRE: Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) shows up at Empire in the "Outspoken King" episode of EMPIRE airing Monday, Jan. 14 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. ©2014 Fox Broadcasting Co. CR: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Throwing a wrinkle into Lucious’ grand plans is the return of his vengeful ex-wife Cookie (Howards’ Hustle and Flow co-star Taraji P. Henson), who’s just spent 17 years in the slammer after taking the fall for him.

Played to the hilt by Henson in a wonderfully sassy, stiletto-chucking, steam-roller of a performance, Cookie might be my favourite thing about Empire. Watching her fiercely ambitious grab for power is a riot. As long as the show can engineer reasons for her to barge into Lucious’ conference room at inopportune moments – or continue trading catty insults with A&R head Anika (Grace Gealey) – it should have no trouble of entertaining (one foresees a Bad Girls Club-style brawl for Cookie in the not-so-distant future).

While Empire addresses legitimate themes – homophobia in the black community, hip hop’s relationship with gang violence and misogyny – the show functions best when it goes way, way over-the-top. Cookie’s spit-take-inducing line, “I want to show you a faggot really can run this company!”, reveals its creators’ self-awareness in the larger-than-life absurdities of the universe they’re portraying. Funnier still is Lucious’ phone call to the PoTUS, immediately following Hakeem’s drunken, viral anti-Obama rant in episode two: “C’mon Barack, you know you don’t have to use that kind of language”.

I haven’t even mentioned the suggestively kinky stuff yet. Andre’s now-notorious “blowjob bib” and boning of the deputy mayor for intel. Naomi Campbell cameoing in mommy-issue love scenes with Hakeem.

Musically, the Timbaland-produced tracks that appear on the soundtrack don’t exactly sound like top-shelf A-side product, but they’re slick enough and work serviceably in a show that has its tongue partially planted in cheek.

jamal hakeem

The music helps the show with something it seems to be lacking at the moment: a heart. Its least cynical, most emotionally direct scenes involve Jamal and Hakeem jamming together, laying down tracks in a fit of creative inspiration. Their brotherly bond makes for a touching break from the mounting Machiavellian forces that will certainly drive them apart.

It’s too early in the game to pick which Lyon will rise to the top, but episode three’s cliffhanger, in which Jamal’s throwdown of intent raises the stakes dramatically, hints that he could well be Empire’s dark horse. Watch out Lucious, your “sensitive punk” is comin’ for ya.

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The Wrap

After enduring the Wachowskis’ recent big-budget turkey Jupiter Ascending, I’m giving their sci-fi Netflix show Sense8 a skip… a spin-off of 24 is in development, but with a new, younger male lead instead of Kiefer Sutherland, who’ll only be guest starring… another series of Arrested Development is coming, even though season four sucked… new ABC drama The Whispers has been compared to Lost and its pilot was directed by Mark Romanek, so colour me intrigued… just started season five of Game of Thrones, the latest I’ve ever been to the table for this show.


Need more Empire? Click here to listen to Duncan Greive, Alex Casey and NZ Herald critic Dominic Corry dissect the first three episodes.