Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: Empire (on Fox)

Terrence Howard and Grace Grealey
(Photo still © Chuck Hodes)
Like almost everyone we know, C and I made time to catch Empire, the new midseason drama that debuted on Fox on January 7.  Extensively ballyhooed on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere, Empire is the creation of Academy Award-winning director Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, and aims, as some accounts I have read suggest, to be a fusion of Dynasty, the 1980s evening soap opera, hip hop, and King Lear. And don't forget The Sopranos. It definitely has Dynasty's melodrama and larger-than-life acting, a good deal of original hiphop in its soundtrack, and Shakespeare's three battling children (including a queer Cordelia figure), as well as the former New Jersey show's cast of semi-domesticated gangsters, but whether it all works together--though it most definitively is the work of Lee Daniels, as anyone standing in the next room overhearing could tell without much effort--is another matter.

Empire tells the story of music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who has raised his three sons Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) by himself as his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson in an every-scene-stealing performance) has served time for a drug conviction, though when the series starts, she's just been released, of course without anyone else's foreknowledge. It's unclear how old Lucious is supposed to be--yes, black don't crack but the man doesn't appear a year over 45, even though his eldest son could be nearing 30 (it is biologically possible, I know)--but he is thinking about his eponymous empire, which he is about to take public, and about his potential successors. By the end of the pilot episode, he also receives health news that will eventually take him off the show (unless it turns out to be a misdiagnosis; the writers have written themselves in a bit of a corner with this one). He also commits a mortal crime (I don't mean the hair), but it's so clumsily handled that it can only lead to serious problems.

In Lear fashion, the sons don't exactly delight in each others' time. Andre, the eldest and CFO of Lyon Entertainment, feels he doesn't get enough respect from his father because of his lack of musical ability, suffers from bipolar disorder (I'm almost cringing to see how this is depicted), and is married to his white college sweetheart, Rhonda. Jamal, who possesses enough music skills to make Prince jealous, is openly gay, anti-corporate, estranged from his father--who, in a scene taken from Daniels' life but nevertheless horrifying, throws the child in a trashcan (!) when he appears in drag during a family party--and lives with his Latino boyfriend, Michael (Rafael de la Fuente). Hakeem, who struck me as the least well drawn character so far, parties too much, loves older woman (Macy Gray, Naomi Campbell, etc.) and holds deep hostility towards his mother for having abandoned him (prison, remember). He would send the "Empire" down the drain if left with it for too long.

Bryshere Gray and Jussie Smollett
(Photo still © Chuck Hodes)
That leaves Cookie, who blows out of prison like a tornado and heads first to see her children, to reconnect with them if not exactly to make amends. She wants to manage Jamal. She wants respect from Hakeem, whom she beats with a broom (!) to show him she still Mama and boss. (Cookie don't play that....) She wants her piece of the company. She wants to head the company's AR division. She...well, fill in the blank. Henson is a talented actress, with a capacity for small-scale to megadrama-style acting, and so it was no surprise that once she made her appearance, especially in this role, she would turn things out. One problem with her scenes, though, is that it's not clear Daniels has found the right surrounding frame for her yet, throwing everything off and rendering the proceedings a bit cartoonish. The general tinniness of the dialogue--though there are some great moments--does not help. 

Other characters include Grace Grealey as Anika Calhoun, Lucious's lover and head of Empire Entertainment's AR division and thus Cookie's rival; Malik Yoba as Vernon Turner, a longtime friend of Lucious' and chairman of the company; and Antoine McKay as Bunkie Campbell, a longtime homeboy of Lucious and Cookie from back in the day who ends up paying a serious price for speaking up for himself. Also filling out the cast is actress Gabouré Sidibe, with blond highlights no less, playing Becky, Lucious' assistant. None of these characters was especially compelling, though something tells me that in addition to Bunkie's seeming demise, we may witness some of these other characters taken out or with their hands on a trigger of some sort. I sincerely hope Yoba gets to do more than sit and take insults, and that Sidibe isn't racing breathlessly behind Howard in future episode.

The show raises lots of questions, including whether focusing on a faltering industry, and in this way, is the right setting for a 2015 series; were this show set in 1990 (or had it been made then), it might have resonated much more in every way, but today while there are still music companies, both indies, semi-independents and those fully attached the conglomerates, we can see a cavalcade of their members and participants with minimal varnish and maximum drama on Real Housewives of Atlanta or Love and Hip Hop Atlanta, New York or LA. Are the technical aspects of music-making that this series features anachronistic today? Indeed, the entire landscape of music as an enterprise, along with related industries like music journalism, music TV, etc., has been transformed. Other than Henson's or Smollett's characters, was anyone on the show half as interesting or compelling as Stevie J and Joseline, Li'l Scrappy, Erica Mena and Sin, Joe Buddens and Tahiry, Peter and Amina Buttafly, or Ray J and anyone else on that LA mess factory?

Taraji P. Henson and Terrance Howard
(Photo still © Chuck Hodes)
That the show traffics in stereotypes also rankled, but I know that drawing with broad and familiar strokes is Daniels' purview, and seeking too much subtlety probably was asking too much. Nevertheless, given the paucity of shows about contemporary Black life, anyone traveling this road should make the best effort possible. Respectability isn't the answer, but neither is a lack of complexity. But we will see. The treatment of homophobia, also played into stereotypes. A harshly homophobic Black father isn't such a stretch, of course; I've lived that scenario myself. But did Cookie have to refer to her son as a "queen" and his boyfriend using a feminine pronoun? It was a positive step that the boyfriend ended up being Latino (and we learned that an earlier one had had dreadlocks, if I heard correctly), so the gay = white equation didn't hold. But I will be interested to see how the series plays with Jamal's character, and whether in the interests of pleasing the broad audience, homonormativity becomes Jamal's norm. As is, he's refreshingly distinctive as TV show portrayals go.

One last question that I could not stop asking was: WHY is Terrance Howard running around with a conk? I kept trying to think of figures he might be based on, but since the show is set after 1965, I confess to bafflement. I could even see an old head with 1) a high-top fade--late 80s still and forever, 2) a fro, 3) a Jheri curl, 4) even dreadlocks or a Quo Vadis, but that pressed hair seems straight out of someone mistaken fantasy. His clothing choices also seemed off, as did Hakeem's, but that could just my finickiness. That said, all the houses, cars, and bling do seem appropriate, so perhaps a bit of recalibration can get the show to where it needs to be. But this is just my opinion; it turns out, unsurprisingly, that a good portion of viewers are starved for representations of anything involving Black people or other people of color, and Empire's first night ratings were through the roof. I enjoy watching beautiful people, especially black people, doing their thing, as well as a good soap opera, so I will be tuning into Empire next week too.

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