I realized I had fallen for “Empire,” Fox’s hip-hop melodrama by way of “King Lear,” when I began a list of “crazy shit that has been done or said on ‘Empire'” midway through the series premiere. Sissies, bathhouses, Ray Rice, Mama Rose, public urination: I discontinued the list last week, when ex-con Cookie Lyon (the inspired Taraji P. Henson) said, “I gotta deal with feds, hit men, studio drama, and now Tiana,” finally recognizing that I was likely to end up with a document of Shakespearean length. “‘Least objectionable television’ is dead,” as ABC entertainment president David Lee told the winter gathering of the Television Critics Association last month, and “Empire” is only the latest network series to dance on the grave.
“Empire” revels in every salacious detail of the internecine struggle for control of Empire Enterprises, as the record label’s founder Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) grooms his youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), a rising star, to take his place. Cookie, cut out of the business during a 17-year stint in prison, returns to the fold to support the Lyons’ soulful middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a singer-songwriter performing in cafés and dingy nightclubs; the eldest, Andre (Trai Byers), conspires with his wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), to pit his brothers against each other and secure the throne for himself. As if this weren’t enough grist for the mill, Jamal’s gay, Lucious is homophobic and suffering from ALS, Hakeem’s dating a bisexual pop star, Andre’s bipolar, and Cookie barrels back into their lives with the force of a hurricane. “Empire” is a hot mess.
In this sense, the series is an heir to Shonda Rhimes’ “Scandal” (ABC), the sudsy primetime drama and ratings success at the vanguard of the broadcast networks’ growing ranks of gloriously objectionable television. Sexy, brash, and anything but whitewashed, “Empire” — a kissing cousin to ABC’s entertaining, deeply flawed Rhimes series “How to Get Away with Murder” and the CW’s rapturously received telenovela “Jane the Virgin” — traffics in such heightened emotion it might better be described as delirium, but it’s nonetheless the year’s first bona fide hit.
One glance at Twitter is enough to suggest that audiences have embraced the chance to see an unvarnished portrait of women, people of color, and LGBT people as the agents of their own destinies. “Murder” protagonist Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) removes her wig and asks her husband, “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?” Her first-year law student, Connor Walsh (Jack Falahee), gives a rim job to his latest conquest, Oliver (Conrad Ricamora), during an unexpected tryst. Lucious warns his sons, ” In order for [Empire Enterprises] to survive, I need one of you Negroes to man up and lead it!” The end of “least objectionable television” means refusing to treat those traditionally underrepresented in primetime with kid gloves, and viewers have rewarded the networks’ risks by making each of these series a smash.
“Empire” is far from flawless, and after the first two episodes, directed by creator Lee Daniels with his usual eye for excess, it loses some of its verve in a Hydra of half-assed subplots — none of which prove nearly as compelling as the Lyon family’s squabbles. Yet even as it struggles to streamline the narrative, “Empire” remains audaciously, unapologetically alive. “For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place,” Cookie, wearing a white fur coat over her leopard-print dress, tells Jamal in the pilot, an instant classic of gleeful, politically incorrect camp. “Honey, you didn’t tell me you was datin’ a little Mexican! Look at her, she’s adorable! Yeah, I said ‘little Mexican.’ You need to get la cucaracha to clean up around here.” (The “she” is Jamal’s boyfriend, Michael, played by Rafael de la Fuente.)
Like the other primetime network soaps sounding the death knell of “least objectionable television,” “Empire” courts controversy, but it also grounds its playfulness in hard-earned sentiment. The relationships among Cookie, Jamal, Lucious, and Hakeem are a heady brew of pride, disappointment, protectiveness, competition, and love, and it’s here that “Empire” shines. To see Jamal and Hakeem collaborate even as their parents attempt to pry them apart, or to watch Cookie defend Jamal from Lucious’ rage in one flashback, when the young boy comes downstairs wearing Cookie’s pink pumps, is to understand that “Empire” is more interested in the business of family than the family business.
It’s the sincere, not the saccharine, that lends “Empire” ballast, even when the series is at its most theatrical. Near the end of the series premiere, after Cookie tries to convince Jamal to cut a record, she sends him back to his friends with a kiss. “Sissy,” she whispers to herself, but her slurs are always said with affection. All the “crazy shit” I registered in the first six episodes, including a fabulous surprise in the opening minutes of tonight’s “Out, Damned Spot,” creates a similar effect. It turns out that what’s most objectionable about Fox’s bold breakout is also what makes it sing.
“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9pm on FOX.