Alex Casey enters the lavish world of Empire through a portal of fake Terrence Howard cash, and tells you why should be watching one of the most highest-rating dramas in recent history.
Last week I was invited to the TV2 launch of Empire, one of 2015’s most talked-about shows that is finally arriving to hip hop’s spiritual home, New Zealand. Straight into Scribe’s bosom. Set around the world of commercial hip hop, it’s a stylish show that immediately screams money and gold. I figured as much when I got a huge gold envelope stuffed with fake Terrence Howard money:
At the launch, I would realise just how much more of this Terrence cheddar was in circulation. A Flava DJ announced something about winning free tickets to a double bill of Jason Kerrison and Tiki Taane (Terrence Howard rolled his eyes on the $200 note), someone suddenly yelled “make it raaaaaiiin.” Everyone looked up expectantly – even Norrie Montgomery was intrigued.
Then, with the gusto of a thousand disappointing Christmases, a promo crew threw fistfuls of fake cash onto the crowd from the balcony above. They limply wafted down, not so much showering but erratically spitting on innocent bystanders:
Safe to say, I’ve seen cooler things in my life. Luckily, the show itself is one of them. Empire manages to assemble several things that would appear chronically unhip to the general populous (spontaneous musical numbers, turtlenecks and this guy), dip them in Dom Perignon, and make everything fine again.
The basic premise of the show is set around the hip hop music company Empire Entertainment, championed by patriarch CEO Lucious Lyon (a turtlenecked Terrence Howard). Discovering that his health is ailing, Lucious is determined to find a new heir to the Empire throne which, by the way, looks exactly like Mike Puru’s giant chair in After the Final Rose
Lucious has three sons, one of which will inherit his turtleneck legacy: Jamal, Andre and Hakeem. Although there’s three of them, they’re all diverse. Just like the Bee Gees. Andre is a baller bipolar businessman, Jamal is gay, facing a tirade of constant disappointment from his father and Hakeem is a fame-hungry rap god. A regular Barry, Maurice and Robin; they all enter the race to lead the Empire.
As that cookie is crumbling, yet another cookie is added to the delicious Empire bakery cabinet of drama. I’m talking of course about Cookie, Lucious’ ex-wife and the mother of the three tributes. She took the fall during a drug bust in the early days of Empire, and is released from prison 17 years later to “take back what’s mine” (followed by intense Days of Our Lives style dramatic strings).
The potential for drama is clear, we have layers and layers of power plays, self-interest and childhood resentments trickling down like a champagne fountain on a superyacht. The shows creator Lee Daniels himself has cited the likes of soap opera Dynasty as a heavy influence, so it’s no surprise that Empire comes with a strong undercurrent of daytime melodrama. It’s Days of Our Lives hiding under a fur coat and gold chain. And yet, as I said earlier, somehow this creates a show which feels fresh and modern.
Shout out to Timbaland, the real-life music producer of Empire. You’ll notice the fantastic original music immediately, drifting in and out of the narrative without the shoehorned spontaneity of Glee. There are 12 songs in the pilot alone, and you’ll barely flinch when the characters occasionally burst into song. Jamal sings the heart-wrenching ballad ‘Good Enough’ as flashbacks reveal his tortured relationship with his father. Hakeem rediscovers his inner rap beast in ‘Right There’. As the creator said himself, the story drives the songs rather than the other way round – this is crucial component in removing the Glee-factor.
Empire is slick, stylish and feels almost too good to be true. Under the pristine golden premise of the show, the power struggles and family tensions are essentially universal. Whack on a du-rag, pour yourself some bubbles and layer some chains around that turtleneck – it’s going to be one hell of a lavish trip through some very real drama.
Empire premieres tonight on TV2 at 8.45pm