Why everyone is freaking out about ‘Empire’

Did you happen to catch the premiere of the new FOX music drama Empire this week? If you didn’t watch it — or at least DVR it, like me — you might want to start looking into your streaming options. This show is going to be HUGE and everyone’s already freaking out about it. Even I’m freaking out about it, and I’m a person who tends to keep their TV shows closely collected between comic book adaptions and crime procedurals. But I’m here to spread the gospel that Empire is awesome. I’m hooked, and it appears I’m not alone.

The story follows music mogul, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) who is in charge of Empire Entertainment. He’s a former drug dealer turned musician who now rules over his entertainment empire while looking like he’s dressed for A Night at the Roxbury. Another thing about Lucious, and one that will certainly carry through as a backbone of the show, he’s just been diagnosed with ALS. His doctor gave him maybe three years to live, maybe less. He knows he has to leave his company to someone, and thankfully he has three sons to choose between — but none of them perfectly fit his requirements.

Lucious wants the company to be run by a musician, just like himself. Eldest son Andre seems like the perfect fit, but he’s not musically inclined. Middle son Jamal is a PERFECT CHOICE — and is my new favorite breakout star, Jussie Smollett — but Jamal is gay, and sadly Lucious isn’t cool with that. Lastly there’s the youngest son, Hakeem, who’s kind of a slacker but is slated to be that “next big thing” if he’d just stop showing up to recording sessions hung over.

There’s one more major player here, and that’s Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie, who was just released from prison after serving a 17-year sentence. Cookie is played by Taraji P. Henson who will probably get a million award nominations for her role as the scorned ex-wife, fighting for her shares of the company she helped create.

Have you picked up on the fact that underneath all the music this is a heavily rooted family drama? Not like the family drama of the Braverman Clan — no, this is some heavy King Lear ish focused on power hungry people who will stop at nothing to get what they believe they deserve. The show actually draws its inspiration from James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, which is a play about Henry II, his wife, their children, and their struggle for power (it’s also a movie starring Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn, which you should watch). You probably weren’t expecting so much backstory for a show that appears to be about nothing more than hip hop, but there you have it.

All these ingredients are probably why Empire completely broke Fox records with its first episode — it was the most watched Fox premiere since 2012. Initial numbers show that 9.8 million people watched episode one, and that’s not counting DVR, On Demand, or streaming views, so the number is bound to grow.

Empire has already attracted a huge number of fans — like our friend Roxanne Gay who recapped the episode for The Wall Street Journal, and gave it the ultimate backhanded compliment: “this show is a hot mess but it is a really watchable hot mess.” Of course with each song of praise, there are the criticisms. While it depicts the inner workings of the hip hop world, it is nowhere near perfect to what really happens behind the scenes. Rolling Stone also pointed out that many of the songs featured aren’t anything we are going to rush off and download and indeed include lyrics that “could maybe pass as the inoffensive patter of bar mitzvah emcees.”

Also, 50 Cent isn’t too happy about the show, suggesting that it’s far too similar to his own show, Power. Until right now I was completely unaware that 50 Cent had his own show called Power.

Regardless, Empire boasts a strong pedigree of huge Hollywood talent not just in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well. It was written by Danny Strong and directed by Lee Daniels (the duo teamed up for Lee Daniels’ The Butler). Lee Daniels wanted the music to feel authentic, so he reached out to Timbaland for help, naturally. It’s also produced by Imagine Television, which means it’s got Brian Grazer as a producer (that’s Ron Howard’s longtime producing partner).

Basically, Empire is so far looking like the best new show of the mid-season and I’m excited to see where it’s heading. It has an incredibly dynamic and diverse cast who are either huge stars already, or on their way to becoming the next big thing (Jussie Smollett, just trust me on this).

My only complaint is that Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Lucious’s assistant, needs to be in way more scenes with way more to do. Other than that, let’s plan to meet up and talk next week after Empire‘s second episode, k? I’m hooked, are you?


Images via here here, here.

Filed Under