The best television out there right now is coming up unexpected. It isn’t zombie horror “The Walking Dead,” and it isn’t the latest season of Netflix’s “House of Cards.” The show that’s gluing eyes to TV sets nationwide is newcomer “Empire,” the nighttime musical soap about the intricate and frequently outrageous inner workings of a family with a reign over the hip hop music industry.
Co-created by melodrama auteur Lee Daniels, whose directing credits include “Precious,” “The Paperboy,” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” the new hit series spins the record on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” by revamping it into the modern tale of a dying CEO of a record label struggling to choose which of his three sons is most fit to carry on his almighty legacy. Terrence Howard plays rapper-turned-megaman Lucious Lyon, and the trio of aforementioned sons — all portrayed by unknowns fast on their way to stardom — are equally unfit in their own ways. The eldest, Andre (Trai Byers), has a brain of business but lacks the edge that propels someone like his dad, a Jay Z of sorts, to the top. The youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), is a ladies’ man a bit too turned by on by the throes of limelight and booze to figurehead a corporation. Then Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the gifted middle child, is gay.
“Empire” runs with a formula that by nature seems destined for a high-end platform like HBO. But the creator rejected this. Daniels told Out Magazine earlier this year: “I knew half of my family couldn’t afford HBO. The audience that is important for this show can’t afford HBO. I’m talking about people that are impoverished, or people that haven’t come out of their communities, or haven’t left their blocks or their cities, and haven’t seen the world. Oftentimes, a lot of these people are homophobic, I feel.”
Unleashing “Empire” to the world via FOX, as a wider-reaching alternative, was the right move. It was the network’s highest-rated debut in the past three years, and its viewership is growing almost exponentially. Its soap opera twists, turns and betrayals share the appeal of watching any dysfunctional family trying to hold it all together. But intertwining this with a behind-the-scenes look at the cutthroat world of label signings, video shoots, tabloid scandal and executive realness — this makes it what it is. The stakes are higher, the same way the stakes seem higher in gossip magazines’ alleged Kimye divorce drama than what may be occurring in our own lives. Like the plights of kings and queens, the Lyon dynasty’s conflicts possess a Shakespearean, suspenseful-music-as-we-cut-
The show also stands on the roster of the more diverse and norm-challenging mainstream phenomena with TV audiences in their chokehold.
One of the serial’s most prominent storylines, and most attesting to its ‘pave the way’ status, revolves around Jamal Lyon. He’s arguably the most talented of his siblings, and led by the hand of his ruthless mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), is about to break through into the music scene in a major way. At the show’s outset he lives with his gorgeous Venezuelan boyfriend in a loft paid for his by father — but it’s his father’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” prejudice that has shamefully discouraged him from coming out. Although rare instances like Frank Ocean’s(*) would divert this notion, homosexuality isn’t known to sell hip hop records. While hatefulness is gradually letting up, queer identity remains a target in that facet of the music world. “Empire”’s depiction of Jamal’s struggle for acceptance from his father and community is one of the show’s most relevant aspects and the epicenter of much of its emotional breakthrough.
“Empire” is similarly a showcase for strong women. The epitome of this arrives in the form of Cookie, straight out of a jail cell after taking a hit for her husband — so that his career could prosper, he could raise the boys, and he could take all the credit for the company he founded alongside his wife and rise upon the throne. When Cookie emerges from prison she’s almost presented as an antagonist — the next soap arc on its way to fiddle with the characters’ lives. Yet having entered as a villain, she has grown into the story’s hero. Outspoken and ostentatious, Cookie is sassy with a purpose. While Lucious is grading his son’s errors in search for the new heir, what he fails to see is that Cookie is the true soul of Empire Records, and the greatest hope for its succession.
Taraji P. Henson’s antihero is the new and highly-quotable fierce gay icon, but one need not look so far in “Empire” to find more of those. Guest stars include Gaborey Sidibe, Naomi Campbell, Courtney Love and Raven-Symoné — the latter who came out about her relationship with a girl last year. Ilene Chaiken of “The L Word” fame was brought on as Executive Producer. Timbaland oversees the music, and while I wasn’t initially in a rush to purchase a download of the entire collection, each episode’s tracks serve their purpose, and they just keep on getting better. Last episode’s ‘Conqueror,’ performed by Estelle and Jussie Smollett, made the #4 spot on the US iTunes Store.
In the season’s pilot, a flashback reveals the crux of Jamal’s upbringing. As a young boy he presents himself to his parents wearing heels and a headscarf — Lucious responds in homophobic slurs and stuffs his son in a trash can while a distressed Cookie tries to intervene. The flashback returns in Episode 8, “The Lyon’s Roar”: performing at an industry gathering, Lucious wills Jamal to “tell his truth in the music,” advice that comes back to bite him when Jamal proceeds to officially come out by altering lyrics of the song. There is a time-out where the boyhood trauma is replayed — the screaming, the trash can’s lid closing to engulf Jamal in darkness — but once it’s washed over him he’s freed to soar back through the chorus and the crowd’s applause.
It’s triumphant moments like these that make me feel a part of a greater whole. I can’t help but imagine every one of the purported 16 million viewers, gazing up at their TV screens — black and white, gay and straight, fathers and sons — and like a sixth sense, I feel their experience on top of my own. “Empire” is cable’s campy queen, and she’s here to stay.