Starting a new TV show is like beginning a relationship. The first few episodes are the courtship phase. Very casual. No commitment. Mid-way through the season you are going steady. You want to see where this is going. And by the end of season one, you know whether or not you have a future together. With Empire, I knew immediately. It was love at first sight.
Home to a pride of Lyons, Empire Entertainment is a Fox debuted anthropic jungle, born from talent, sacrifice and a whole lot of drug money. A self-proclaimed ‘God’, music mogul Mr Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), is dealt a turn of fate by the actual God when he is diagnosed with a terminal illness and given “maybe more but probably less” than three years to live. With the clock now ticking, he must decide which of his three sons will take over his kingdom.
The eldest, Andre (Trai Byers), is the white sheep of the family, having been born without a disposition for music. His inability to roar like a Lyon leaves him the weakest of the three cubs, despite his Ivy League education and current position as CFO.
Middle child, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is undoubtedly the most gifted of the three but his homosexuality threatens to leave him without a pride let alone the inheritance of the throne.
The youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), is Lucious’s first choice. Although he is reckless, arrogant and his work ethic leaves a lot to be desired, Lucious loves the sight of his own reflection and Hakeem is his mirror image. Or so he thinks.
But a death sentence isn’t enough. Clearly still irritated by Lucious’s self-promotion to a deity, God decides to turn his fate a little more. Enough to open, say, a cell door – his ex-wife’s cell door. Whoever said revenge was a dish best served cold obviously didn’t see Cookie Lyon (Taraji p Henson) in a fur coat. Having sacrificed 17 years of her life in jail for love, this lioness is put into the wild once more and this time she is staking her territory with high heels. And so the fight for the Empire begins.
But unbeknown to Cookie, there’s a new cat in town – Boo Boo Kitty. With one claw in Lucious and the other claw in Cookie’s dream job (head of A&R) Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey) doesn’t have a hand to spare as she engages in verbal sparring with Cookie. Not that it would matter. When it comes to one-liners and humour, Cookie is unrivalled. Her wit is as sharp as her stilettos and equally as dangerous. So loveable is this character that Lucious, who has been on a sugar free diet for 17 years, can’t keep his hand out the Cookie jar. But a secret sweet tooth can’t hide rotting teeth and every character’s mouth has cavities. Shrouded by the succession of the throne is a range of issues eating away at each character’s soul. Bipolar disorder, racism, abuse of power, dishonesty, treachery and homophobia are examples of the many layers of this show. They are intertwined in such a way that each Lyon mistakes the devil inside them for the devil before them. Addressing issues behind a vail of ignorance is creative brilliance by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (creators). The character’s different personalities not only make them entertaining contenders in the surface story, but they also show what happens when you unintentionally feed the beast within you.
Meanwhile, feeding the musical monster in the viewership is Timbaland. Admitting that he is “stuck in the world of Diana Ross and Donna Summer”, Daniels, on the recommendation of his children, enlisted the expertise of Timbaland. Acting as song-writer and producer, Timbaland didn’t just create an unbelievable soundtrack, he created an addiction and I’m not sorry to say, there’s no coming back from it. Credit must, of course, be given to the remarkable cast. The talent in the show is overwhelming and enough to make you forgive Daniels and Strong for giving Naomi Campbell a role. Definitely not cast because of her acting ability, Campbell was only one of the many ‘big names’ to make an appearance. Mary J Blige, Snoop Dog and Patti Labelle – This show is a definite who’s who of black celebrities. Even Obama was referenced as being on first name terms with Lucious.
But the inclusion of actual stars isn’t what makes the show credible. It is the passion; the passion of the creators, who put their dreams and visions into the show, the passion of Daniels in particular, who put a piece of himself into Jamal and the passion of the actors who are really as in love with music as we are led to believe. Cookie said “You lose your soul when you think the world's forgotten you”, to which the show replied “your soul is never too far from music”.