Empire Series Premiere Review: King Lear (Remix)

Empire S01E01: "Pilot"

You know that style of review where the writer opens with, "All you need to know about Show X is that it's the kind of show where a character says 'Wild Line Z'"? Yeah, you know the one. I'm not necessarily a big fan of that approach, but I can't think of a better way to introduce Fox's new hip-hop drama Empire. You see, Empire is the kind of show where the the male lead (the always game Terrence Howard) says, with absolute earnestness, "I've never let anything become between our friendship. [Beat] Except a bullet." [Immediately executes his lifelong friend.] That, folks, was a tremendously wild moment toward the end of Empire's first episode, and it was just one of many.

Empire (developed for TV by Danny Strong and Lee Daniels, with the pilot directed by Daniels), is not an exceptionally original show, premise-wise. Howard's Lucious Lyon is a hip-hop star turned mogul who's looking to take his label/multimedia conglomerate public, but he's doing so with the knowledge that a serious illness is going to take his life sooner rather than later. As the amazingly named Lucious tries to determine which of his three sons to groom as the next head of the company—the MBA-holding eldest, Andre (Trai Byers); the musically gifted but partially closeted Jamal (Jussie Smollett); or the youngest and angriest Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray)—his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) gets out of prison after doing 17 years on a drug charge that, of course, yielded the capital to start the company in the first place. This is the kind of rags-to-riches tale we've seen before, with flourishes of Shakespearian family drama that intersect the worlds of hip-hop and crime, and one that reunites Howard and Henson after their acclaimed work on Hustle & Flow (a movie that is somehow now 10 years old). But despite the familiarity that many of us probably felt while watching the first episode, there's something cool about a TV series that really revels in its generic conventions and has fun without shifting into unintentional parody or even camp.

In the pilot, that fun started with the cast. Howard is a problematic actor to root for given his alleged misdeeds in the real world, but when he's handed material like this, the dude can thrive. Henson is coming off a great run on Person of Interest and her line delivery was excellent throughout this first episode. Her Cookie is not quite over the top, toeing that line between intense drama and parody, and that's all in Henson's performance. Empire's use of flashbacks to give us a glimpse at Lucious and Cookie's life before Cookie went to prison aided both Howard and Henson, allowing the former to really let it rip in contrast with his more measured demeanor in the present, while the latter was able to show a more motherly, supportive side to a woman who's more entertainly brash once she gets out of lockup. It also helped that Howard and Henson have awesome chemistry together (as evidenced by Hustle & Flow), which made every Lucious-Cookie interaction in the present day much more playful than you might expect considering the story being told on the page. Cookie's energy destabilized Lucious's business-like persona, underscoring their connection while also piercing his carefully constructed façade.

The rest of the cast was also pretty great, and they certainly shouldn't be ignored simply because they can't make the material crackle like Empire's two leads. All three of the Lyon sons were solid, and importantly, distinctive enough from one another that the show should be able to wring some good stories out of their interlinking relationships with their siblings and parents. If anything, it was pretty cool that they felt like brothers, especially Jamal and Hakeem. The show is obviously building up the King Lear parallels (as Smollett's Jamal actually referenced early in the episode) that will ultimately pit them against one another, but the attempts to convince us that they do, indeed, love one another will only make their eventual betrayals that much more satisfying. Of the three performances, I probably enjoyed Smollett's the most, but he was admittedly given the meatiest material to work with. Byers and Gray have a lot of potential, too.

Of course, the performances weren't the only element of Empire's pilot that made it so successful. As a series opener, the episode was impressively efficient in establishing all the key players and their basic relationships to one another, and in drawing up a very clear road map for the next chunk of episodes. That's what pilots are supposed to do, but in a TV season that's been fairly devoid of good ones, Empire is a welcome addition. Sure, the show still has a lot of story to tell, but I didn't get the sense from Episode 1 that it's interested in pulling any punches, or unnecessarily holding things back for future installments.

The internal race to the top between Lucious/Hakeem and Cookie/Jamal is a good place to start, and the pilot was smart enough to set up legitimate motivations for why Empire is headed down this particular path. Jamal's sexuality, Lucious's blunt, outward rejection of it (so oppressive that he stuffed Jamal into a garbage can for wearing heels as a young boy), and Cookie's supportive-but-still-kinda-exploitative treatment of it produced the hour's best material. That storyline, and the occasional references to what the internet has done to the music business, illustrated that Empire is definitely interested in tapping into some contemporary cultural conversations, and whether or not it will explore those topics with any subtlety over time is something to keep an eye on.

Despite some of its "heavier" subject matter, Empire seems to know exactly what it is, and what it wants to be. Yes, there's plenty of fun to be had, but this isn't necessarily an over-the-top drama that gets lost in the bad conventions of the primetime soap (oh hey, Nashville). However, that'll be the show's biggest challenge going forward. Nashville also started out with bigger, bolder intentions and a plan to tell stories about its titular city, and now it's a (wholly enjoyable) soap about the romantic entanglements of its hundreds of characters. At the outset, Empire's scope is slightly less grand, so it might not have as much trouble maintaining control of its story and tone over time. But it's pretty easy for shows like this to accidentally slide from high-stakes drama to histrionic drama, simply by trying to outdo themselves time and time again. Although to be frank, Howard and Henson, as good as they are here, could easily kill it on that other type of show as well.

Those concerns are for the future, however. For now, Empire has turned in one of the better network pilots of the 2014–2015 TV season. Fox desperately needs this show to help stabilize its schedule, and I hope people will stick with it. There could be something very good here.



LINER NOTES

– Oh, right: the music. It was pretty good! Timbaland's fingerprints are naturally all over it and if you're a fan of his style, or even if you're not, there's a lot to like about the way it's incorporated. I wish some of the music sounded less produced, but that's never going to happen in an environment like this. Smollett's performance in the middle of the episode was really lovely.

– I'm not the biggest fan of Lee Daniels' directing style, but this episode looked really nice. Shout-out to the production and set designers, because Empire's homes and offices are gorgeous. The flashbacks were the just the right amount of "gritty," too.

– I'm happy to see Malik Yoba appear in a supporting role as Lucious's financial man Vernon, and Gabourey Sidibe is always, always a welcome presence, even if she's playing an assistant. She was having fun during the musical performance at the club.

– I'm very intrigued by the show's interest in the internet's impact on the music industry. Lucious's early speech about how illegal downloading has ruined the chances of people like him rising up out of unfortunate (and criminal) circumstances wasn't not compelling, but it also wasn't entirely fair. Later, Cookie's reference to Jamal's "success" being limited to acclaim among a few hundred white kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco suggested a more knowledgeable interest in the internet music community, which is something I'd love for the show to address in more detail later on.


Comments (54)
Submit
Sort: Latest | Popular
Jan 12, 2015
I think I felt a little more for this show than I did for Nashville. I gave that show a three episode chance and just couldn't get into it. Empire is getting a test, but I actually didn't watch it until between two NFL playoff games yesterday when I probably had lots of time since Friday was entirely repeats. I think I felt more empathy for Jamal and Hakeem and I actually understand Andre, so that probably helped. I am giving this a pretty good chance, but next week (the week following this one) the 100 is coming back and then as soon as that ends apparently Supernatural is moving there. Mondays and Tuesdays have a lot of shows to catch up on and, well, Elementary is already my designated Saturday morning show.
Reply
Flag
Jan 11, 2015
Wait, so people actually liked this poor excuse of a show? ahahahahahahahahahaha..this show was absolutely horrible, horrendous, and down right awful. I already had a feeling that it would be a #2 from all the previews I saw for it. Yet I decided to give it a chance anyways and not to my surprise, or the people I watched it with, we all agreed it was one of the worst shows we've all seen in a very long time. Everything about it was bad and I mean really bad. The stereotypes that were reinforced all throughout it smh. Some of the acting (the youngest son was down right horrible)and the premises of the show was weak as hell also. In typical hollywood fashion, they have to incorporate a gay character into a show somehow. Why? I have no idea. It definitely seems like an agenda. If that's what certain viewers enjoy watching then so be it, but do NOT continue to force it upon those of us who dislike that type of lifestyle/behavior and not wish to be blindsided by it while watching programming that isn't about it. I'm disgusted and fed up with that nonsense it needs to be put to an end. There's plenty of shows that are geared towards the gay community. That's where that bs belongs. Let me get back on topic though lol. Empire is just another horrible show on fox. Fox is praying that Terrence and Taraji have enough star power to pull viewers in. Which they do, it's the reason why I gave the show a chance in the first place, but regardless of the good acting they deliver, the show is still a piece of shit. The music is a piece of shit too. Well atleast the music from the younger son is. The kid can't rap for shit. You would think a big network like fox would dish out the $$$ for some decent original rap lyrics but I guess not lmao. If I remember correctly, the gay sons music is ok though. I've never commented on anything on here but I felt compelled to since a lot of peoples reviews on here are extremely misleading, unless you enjoy crappy ass television that is.Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henderson are good actors too. I don't know why they'd even be associated with something so bad. Like the old saying goes though, money talks. Which is the same reason Taraji and Idris Elba were in the movie no good deeds(stay away from that movie also, it might be even worst than empire. But damn Taraji, you went from person of interest to this? That's like getting demoted from lieutenant back to a patrol cop! This show is nothing like power in the slightest sense. Power is a great show all around. While this is just shitty television at its best. I read someone post in one of the first few comments that power sucked and this show was much better. If that individual has such a bad taste in television, i'd hate to hear his or hers opinion on anything else. Fox has turned into such of a joke of a network. They cancel really good shows like gang related after one season but promote the hell out of garbage like this show? Hopefully empire gets cancelled soon. I really don't see it making it past the first season. I'm hoping it doesn't make it that far though.
More+
Reply
Flag
Jan 10, 2015
I have watched the pilot and unfortunately I didn't like it. Only thing I enjoyed was the character of Cookie. Rest of it, quite plastic. The 3 sons are uninteresting, the music is fake (sounds studio even when they are singing spontaneously, wtf) and I don't feel anything about the kill of a fellow I know nothing about, so why should I come back?
Reply
Flag
Jan 10, 2015
Clicked to see what Carter's up to. But even from the premise, it just doesn't sound like it's up to my alley. Good luck to Joss though. We're missing her in the Team Machine.
Reply
Flag
Jan 10, 2015
I think they made a major mistake letting her go from POI, and indeed, she chose a good role for herself in Empire. Her performance is the only thing I could find of interest in the pilot.
Reply
Flag
Jan 10, 2015
With hindsight, had they known Sarah Shahi would leave, they might not have. But I don't know how much of the decision was POI and how much was hers.
Reply
Flag
Jan 10, 2015
She's done a good job of finding a very different character. Still a strong woman though.
Reply
Flag
Jan 09, 2015
Note to Cory / Editor: This article is not linked on the Empire overview or Pilot page. The only way to find this is to search through the news.

It was an ok episode. I watched it only because of Taraji P. Henson. The setup to get the brothers competing against each other seemed a bit unrealistic to me considering we had seen them being pretty tight with each other.

I like the two main characters a lot. I think the writers are going to have to be very creative with pulling out enough story from this premise, without turning it into a soap.
Reply
Flag
Jan 09, 2015
Was Über camp and totally over the top BUT i will be watching! Sign me up for this soapy camp fest!
Reply
Flag
Jan 09, 2015
Great show!! I was excited the minute I heard about it. Way better than Power, better acting,better characters, overall it's the better show. Power is on premium cable and has more freedom than Empire has yet it sucks. The music is great, the acting is great and the story seems strong. Its already one of my favorite shows. Can't wait for next week.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 11, 2015
You must be smoking some laced Mary Jane if you believe that hahaha. Power is amazing this show is just degrading to myself and all other african americans. It's like one big tastelss parody. Precious morbidly obese self is such a useless, annoying, and ugly character. She's actually good in american horror story but she sucks in this show. Nobody wants to see her fat ass in a dress or see her slap her disgusting thighs as a substitute for clapping. I almost threw up every time her character was shown in the pilot episode.
Reply
Flag
Jan 11, 2015
Damn what you got against big girls you're superficial
Reply
Flag
Jan 12, 2015
Lmao I have nothing against them. I just hate when someone is larger than life and can afford the means to get healthy and fit(eat very healthy, get a really good personal trainer etc) yet they choose not to and continue living a lifestyle that'll surely lead to a lot of health problems and eventually an early death. There's absolutely no excuse for that. You'd think it would be a no brainer for one to commit to that, not only for themselves but for those who truly care about them. Especially when that person becomes rich and famous. Wouldn't you want to look your best if you were in the limelight? I guess she likes being known for her disgusting appearance or something. Precious came out a long time ago. It's about time the woman gets her act together before it becomes too late. In the meantime it would be great if she would atleast cover up. Nobody wants to see someone that big In clothing that shows more of their body. I love my woman to be thick not fat. Fat women can get this goody good too lol. That's only if they are just a little overweight though.
Reply
Flag
Jan 09, 2015
disturbing seeing a child put in a bin for being himself. I'd like to know how the studio/director etc help a child deal with a scene like this without being affected. Strong support system?
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Tariji Henson is an unbelievable talent. Howard is playing Howard. But the show in and of itself is pretty strong. Stronger than i thought it would be. The anchor is going to be Cookie's character and how the show uses her talent. If Fox keeps this, and considering Fox's track record that is a big if, it will be another nomination and hopefully an award for her. The music is good too.
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Impressive pilot hope it sustains that quality, this is what Power should've been, or was aiming to be
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
"Despite some of its "heavier" subject matter,": Do you mean Gabourey Sidibe?

I love Taraji after her role on POI. That's not enough to make me watch Empire. I don't like the male lead in anything he does and I hate hip-hop and rap with a passion. 'Nuff said.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Loved show, loved the actors performances and loved the music, Fox better keep this in rotation. I wish the "limited commercial" theme would stay intact, but I know it won't. I liked the fact they didn't shy away from the blunt, crude and rude.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
I liked it a lot - Taraj just kills it and Terence is ba-BOOM. Powerful acting, good realistic dialogue, excellent coda, pretty good music too.
Fitty Cent came out and complained on Twitter (since deleted) that Empire was stealing from his cable show Power.
Taraj channeled her inner Cookie, throwing a bit of shade while responding to a fan's question on Twitter about 50 Cent's remarks."How do you feel about what 50 cent said about you and Terrance Howard?" the person asked.
"I pay attention to $'s NOT cents?" she joked. She is just gonna shine in this role. Big ups to FOX. Now don't f*ck it up.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Did you really place the picture of Becky directly above the statement about "heavier" subject matter? Editing Matters.
3
Reply
Flag
Jan 11, 2015
Noticed the same thing.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Not my kind of show - but yay for Danny Strong - he's turned out to be a great writer evidently! And come a long ways from his acting days when he tried to kill Buffy as one of the super nerds from season 6 - and his lone gunman potential killing spree/suicide attempt from season 4's ep "Earshot". Go Danny!
1
Reply
Flag
TQB
Jan 08, 2015
Didn't get to watch yet but now I'm definitely excited. Nashville is at its best when it drops knowledge about the country music biz, and I have high hopes that Empire can keep it's focus.
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Giving this show a change because I like Taraj P Henson, she was great in Person of Interest and to me, she's eye candy :)
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Why am I thinking that this show is set up to be the hip-hop version of Dallas? You got three brothers set up to fight over a company and their father is an overly judgmental a**hole, though the writers gave him a terminal disease (and a particularly nasty one at that.) to at least give him some sympathy. Cookie seems to be given the role of Miss Ellie, though they gave her enough character flaws to make her almost as unlikable as her ex-husband. At least she genuinely loves her sons... or rather two out of three, since the third one she ended up beating with a broom (though, to be fair, he's the biggest jerk in the show yet oddly enough seems to be his father's favorite)

I hope the show lasts. Hell, I was an extra in episode 7, so I have a particular interest in this show.

So which brother do you think will ultimately get the company- Andre- the clone of Carlton Banks, Jamal- the talented but gay musician who seems to be the only decent guy on the show, or Hakeem- the lazy rapper and most unlikable ass on the show (and that's saying something since Lucious murdered his best friend in cold blood.)
More+
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
clicked this article because I saw POI Agent Carter.
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Haven't watched the premiere yet. Just curious tho. Any white people on this show at all?
Reply
Flag
Staff
Jan 08, 2015
A+ troll job
5
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Yes, with so few white people on TV, heaven forbid we should disenfranchise such a marginalized group. (Sarcasm off). Of course there are white people on the show, they're just not the majority. And if it makes you feel any better, the few white people survived the premier, unlike Agent Carter where they killed the lone black person with lines. Hell, they even killed a black person on Empire if that helps any.
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Sorry if it was a stupid question. I was just referring to the main cast. I didn't see any on any promotion for the show and thought it a little odd. Being a black person I just thought it stood out. Sorry if it comes off trollish.
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
lol. I guess that's what you get for asking a question though right? The more you know...
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Are you feeling marginalized by the lack of white actors on TV?
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Andre's wife but really...does it matter?
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
I liked that, quite a lot. They crammed a lot into the pilot, but it somehow worked. Even the flashbacks worked really well. And from the previews, it looks like it won't be slowing down much. I look forward to seeing where it goes and how it tells its stories.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
I wasn't sure I was going to like it but I got hooked. Taraji's performance is pretty much what did it. After basically being treating like sh!t and then summarily executing on Person of Interest, I was glad to see her back. That's what peaked my curiosity, and I'm glad I watched! She owns the scenes she's in and staring here I think is much better than playing 2nd (more like 4th actually) fiddle in Team Machine. While it is drama, some of the things done were obviously fun. I can't get over her beating the CRAP out of Hakeem after he basically showed NO respect for the person responsible for starting his career. Usually, you get a slap across the face in a scene like that but her beating him with the broom was just precious! I loved it! Terence holds his own easily and the other are decent but Taraji is what makes it all click. I am looking forward to watching this series.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 11, 2015
I'm no grammarian or spelling Nazi. I ALWAYS make usage and punctuation mistakes. I used to spell rapport repoire, Lincoln Lincon, inclement inclimate, and grammar grammer for many many years. I noticed you used peaked. It's piqued. It's tiny but I want to help. Of course if I tried to help my kids they would yell at me to leave them alone.

Oh yeah I agree with your comment. I totally loved the broom scene because sometimes I wish I could do that to some people and get away with it.
Reply
Flag
Jan 11, 2015
Yep, as a grammar Nazi myself, you got me. I humbly admit my mistake so I may be better in the future.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 12, 2015
Okay. Thank you. I didn't want to offend.
Reply
Flag
Jan 12, 2015
Why most people don't like to be corrected.

Flag
Jan 12, 2015
This comment has been removed.
Flag
Jan 11, 2015
This comment has been removed.
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
"Empire seems to know exactly what it is, and what it wants to be." -- Could not disagree more! Empire actually seems to know exactly what it wants to be, but not what it is, yet.

Granted, it's the first episode (and not a bad one either). But it was like the show had to introduce EVERY storyline for the season immediately. Dying kingpin, vengeful ex-wife, smart ambitious son, ignored gay son, talented bratty son, weak best friend, various business concerns, murders (past and present), drug money (who cares how he financed the label 17 years ago? No one sweated Dr. Dre for how N.W.A. first got money), etc., etc. CALM DOWN! With this show's potential, it doesn't have to throw the entire seven-course dinner at us all at once to make sure enough people are satisfied.

STARZ original show Power (somewhat similar urban drama) took it's time to reel viewer interest (as well as HBO's Boardwalk Empire). Empire needs to follow that lead, before it gets stuck in it's own mangled web.

Also, the music is cool and all -- and I know Fox wants to sell songs -- but let's dial it back a little before people start calling it the black Glee.
More+
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
I enjoyed it. I feel Jamal's story is the most interesting and intense at this stage of the series - it seems like Empire does have something new to explore in regards to sexuality and fame, at least more so than its other storylines.

I know most of it was mostly set-up, but for me personally the stakes don't really seem to be there yet. Maybe this will change once we begin to invest in the characters, but when Cookie was threatening Lucious and his company, and then Bunky ? (RIP, he would have been fun to keep around) later on in the episode I really didn't care. I also felt the pacing was a bit off at times. They were on a boat at the start and then they were suddenly in a car, then later on Cookie arrives at Jamal's apartment as soon as she gets out of prison and the next scene she meets with Lucious a whole two days later? It was all very odd to me.
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Wow. This is intense. Even in 2015, this show is going to go some uncomfortable places.
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
That wasn't unpleasant. Good performances and lot of potential in the story.
Also the music was really good. So I'll be keeping watch, hope it last long
2
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
This is the best pilot I've ever seen, the acting from the leads is amazing and the plot is compelling. It's fox so I didnt expect it to be that good, I hope it continues be this amazing.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
The King Lear is there, but for me there was a lot of Lion in Winter to Empire. An aging/dying King, an imprisoned Queen just let out, and the use of their sons as pawns Seems far more Winter than Lear to me. Watching the leads battle should be great fun.
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Actually, in The Lion In Winter King Henry II mentions having a lot in common with "a legend of a king named Lear."
Reply
Flag
Jan 09, 2015
True, but since I have always found Lion in Winter more entertaining and less sexist, it is more entertaining than Lear. Plus the movie has a stunning cast led by Kathryn Hepburn and Peter O'Toole happily tearing into each other and using their children and their past history in a giant real-time game of chess. Want to bet which Empire will be closer to as it goes on?
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
FWI, it's Lucious, not Luscious.
1
Reply
Flag
Staff
Jan 08, 2015
Weird. It was spelled one way on the two places I looked, but now I'm seeing that. I'll fix that. Thanks!
1
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
This absolutely GREAT television. Just awesome drama. Fox will kill this. Again, another really good, promising (so far) show that feels like it should be on Showtime or FX and will likely be squandered here. I feel like the broadcast networks WANT to compete with cable for quality programming, and they should, but the system of ad dollars and their reluctance to invest time in a show makes it a bleak prospect for them. I AM, however, utterly astounded when those rare instances of a broadcast network doing right by a show that is quality but not a ratings contender (NBC - Parenthood, FOX - Fringe, for instance). I just don't get too attached to shows like this on those networks anymore. I AM praying that this does wonderful things for us the viewers, for Fox, and TV in general.

3
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
I liked it, I didn’t think I would! Henson and Howard are a force!

And I liked the music. There were a lot of songs in one episode, I don't know if they can keep that up throughout the season.

Although I cannot get attached to anything on FOX, aka Killer of Great Television.
7
Reply
Flag
Jan 08, 2015
Ikr! LMAO @ the comment 'aka Killer of Great Television"
1
Reply
Flag