At first, it was the hats that intrigued me. A great hat makes a big statement, and in all the commercials for Fox’s new drama, Taraji P. Henson could be seen striding into frame with a sharp white fedora snapping all eyes to her. The commercials didn’t do a bad job of summarizing the show’s premise — the inner turmoil of a family built around a recording label, with a cast stacked with Oscar nominees and raw talent.
But it was that hat which made it clear this show was not targeting subtlety. “Empire” was gonna be loud. And that’s worked to the show’s benefit. It’s grown its audience twice in its first three weeks, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 1993. Which makes it impossible to write off.
Tuning in at last reveals a show that isn’t afraid of punchy, Tweetable and yet ridiculous dialogue: Right after Luscious Lyon (Terrence Howard) lays out the King Lear-esque scenario regarding control over the company to his three sons, one of his sons quickly replies “What, is this King Lear now?” (That same scene featured another son asking “Rita, did you bring the hummus?” which for some reason I felt compelled to write down.)
But while the craft might be lacking, the DNA of an engaging series is here. It’s largely down to the cast, especially Henson as Cookie, the show’s breakout character and most compelling element across the board. And that’s not just because in Episode 2, she wears a leopard print fedora and a minidress to match. (Though she does, and it’s awesome.) There’s a raw human quality to her struggle to reclaim what she helped build, despite her ex-husband’s efforts to retcon her out of the company’s origin story. It’s the sort of emotional hook that makes a show engaging.
And there’s no denying it’s engaging audiences. The ratings success of “Empire” has been taken as a sign by the industry that the people are hungry for minority representation on television — which, doy, they totally are — and that “Empire” has encouraged networks to up their diversity game in pilot ordering is great news.
But I suspect that “Empire’s” success speaks to another deficit on television: the unapologetic primetime soap. It’s a hard formula to nail, and even harder to sustain for more than one season; for proof, behold the sad muted state of “Revenge,” which was appointment television all the way through its enjoyable first season, but has never really recaptured that magic despite a lot of patience on the part of ABC.
After Cookie showed up in yet another sparkly dress, it came together for me. “Empire” is the latest heir to the throne built by “Dynasty.” Addictive, glittery drama. (I say that even though I haven’t even seen “Dynasty,” because I was not alive when it premiered. But that is the profound impact of its legacy, the magic it brought to the small screen that made television, even pre-Golden Age, into something truly “must see.” Heads-up, “Empire”: If you pull off a twist on the scale of the Moldavian Massacre, I will use my own money to send you the finest hat I can possibly acquire.)
It’s a tough sort of magic to capture, but when executed properly it’s a lot of fun to watch. Which is why it’s also interesting to consider Danny Strong’s involvement. While he will always and forever be “Jonathan from ‘Buffy'” in our hearts, his writing career was born out of a proven ability to take even the most dry and technical narrative, such as the story of the mess that was the 2000 Presidential election in Florida, and find immediate sources of drama in it. The fact that a key storyline of the first season revolves around Lucious taking his business public — a tedious and bureaucratic process — makes a lot of sense in that context; this is Strong’s wheelhouse.
Of course, there’s a twist. Buried within this gloriously cheesy framework is maybe one of the more complex treatments of homosexuality in mainstream television. We’ve seen the story about the loving families accepting their child’s orientation; we’ve seen the cruelty of a parent who can’t accept the reality and lashes out; but “Empire” proves interested in exploring a middle ground there — a father who firmly believes his son is making a choice to be gay, and finds it offensive, but who hasn’t cut that son out of his life.
It’s an uneasy, complex relationship, and is honestly probably the one element of “Empire” that bears anything resembling a close relationship to reality — especially as anchored by the performances of Howard and Jussie Smollett as his son Jamal, who both really shine with this material.
That storyline alone is a somewhat convincing argument to give “Empire” a chance, and certainly the show has a certain charm to it. But a warning: That charm comes coated in dialogue that never shies away from the obvious observation or over-the-top pronouncement; and a cheesy daytime soap-esque score made even worse in contrast to the actual music of Lucious’s music label (which is actually pretty catchy).
And like many primetime soaps that have come before, there’s no guarantee the show’s energy will sustain. (That series which last grew its audience in Week 2 and Week 3? The now-forgotten ABC drama “Moon Over Miami.”) But at this moment, “Empire” has a pretty powerful momentum, a solid cast, and again, those hats. There are worse reasons to give a show a chance.
“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9pm on FOX.