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‘Empire’ pushes against TV’s status quo in dynamic, entertaining ways

By Jack Shelly / For The Pitt News

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“Empire”

Wednesdays, 9 p.m. on Fox

Four episodes viewed for review

After a brutal fall season of underperforming debuts, Fox finally has a new hit on its hands.

The network’s newest primetime drama “Empire” has been the rare freshman frontrunner of ratings weekly — it debuted to 9.9 million and later netted 11.36 million in its fourth week. Its breakout success speaks both to hip-hop’s integration into mainstream America and middle America’s fascination with the genre. Not only was “Empire” Fox’s most watched debut in the last three years, but it’s also currently the most streamed show online — a testament to its growing, word-of-mouth popularity. Alongside “Empire,” a handful of network TV’s highest rated programs now feature African-American casts and creators, such as “Blackish” and “Scandal.”

Created by Lee Daniels, “Empire” is a modern-day retelling of Shakespeare’s play “King Lear,” and revolves around a dying hip-hop mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), his three ambitious sons and his recently-paroled, scorned ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), who returns to the family. Much like King Lear, Lucious has to sort out who gets which pieces of “the empire.” 

Described as a “musical drama,” the cast performs sporadic musical numbers produced by Timbaland. But the magic behind “Empire” is not in its music, which is fairly mediocre, or even the cliché-dotted script. It is rather the powerful performances from Howard, Henson and, to a lesser extent, their onscreen children.

Howard is convincing as a street-smart business mogul who will do practically anything to get his way. He plays a ruthless drug dealer-turned-rapper while his three sons also each deliver solid performances as an Ivy League-educated suit, a gay singer-songwriter in the vein of Frank Ocean and an obnoxious, yet talented, emerging rap star, respectively.

But the breakout character of “Empire” is undoubtedly Henson’s Cookie, who takes the beyond overdone, archetypal “angry black woman” and makes it entirely her own. Henson creates a complex character who is attention-seeking, bitter, intuitive and formidable — often all in the same scene. The narrative of a mother who gave birth to three children and then spent most of their childhood behind bars adds another intriguing dimension to the storyline.

“Empire” is not just the story of Lucious Lyon and his dysfunctional family — it also mirrors the current hip-hop scene. Lucious’ character is, in many ways, little more than a thinly veiled fictionalization of Russell Simmons or Jay-Z — men who, born to inner city abuse and neglect, hustled every day to break out of the projects and write a new future for themselves. The many unsavory things they did to create a better life — from selling drugs to getting involved in gang-related violence — were perhaps unavoidable in order for them to achieve success. 

After decades of crossover appeal and enormous philanthropy, Lucious Lyon’s murky past comes back to haunt him, raising the question of whether anyone can truly escape their past. 

“Empire” also raises questions about the future of hip-hop. Lyon’s youngest son, the aspiring rapper, faces the challenge of writing lyrics that will resonate with hip-hop’s traditionally underprivileged fan base, despite his highly privileged upbringing. As hip-hop has found fans among the bourgeois masses, many of its new artists no longer have the same rags-to-riches life stories that were once a cornerstone of rap music. For example, Drake — one of the most successful contemporary rappers — grew up in an affluent suburb of Toronto. Kanye West grew up in a middle-class household in Chicago with his mother, a college professor with her doctorate. As upward mobility and increased social opportunities for African-Americans lifts many of hip-hop’s most devoted fans out of poverty, what direction will the music take? How do artists remain connected to the history of rap, hip-hop and urban R&B for decades while remaining authentic to their life experiences?

No matter the answers, the growing popularity of “Empire” speaks to the changing demographics and sensibilities of television as well as music audiences.

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‘Empire’ pushes against TV’s status quo in dynamic, entertaining ways