Empire Season 1 Episode 1 Review: “Pilot”

Empire 1.01

Squint your eyes real, real tight, and FOX’s mid-season, super-hyped musical drama Empire is the spiritual sequel to Hustle & Flow. It’s got the same leads (Terence Howard and Tarjai P. Henson) and follows a natural progression of the story line from the over-hyped 2005 film (a film that did win Three 6 Mafia an Oscar, though; that’s certainly notable), moving the action from gritty, backwoods Memphis to the bright lights and candy-coated world of LA and adding a nicely-tuned Dallas (the original Dallas) undertone to the whole thing. Empire‘s pilot likes to tout itself as a modern telling of King Lear - to the point it makes a self-congratulatory reference of Shakespeare’s play – but as “Pilot” proves time and time again, it’s really not there.

There are a lot of strong notes in the Lee Daniels-directed pilot; the whirlwind that is Cookie Lyon requires a predictably brash performance, and there’s no better fit for it than Tarjai P. Henson, whose performance exudes a class her dialogue and cliche clothing do not. Her dynamic with Howard’s musical magnate/slightly evil patriarch Luscious is a treat, too; the two of them tearing up dialogue for minutes at a time will always be a pleasure. However, the strong performances can’t completely cover up a lack of ingenuity when it comes to plot structure, even when it gives room within its tropes of “drug dealer turned mogul” and “gangster in a suit” (or “jailbird minority girlfriend”, or “gay minority”… there’s a lot of well-thought out bullet points for characters in the pilot).

Plus, Empire is piling on the plot lines with reckless abandon throughout “Pilot”, in an attempt to create an interlocking, Escher-esque story of drama, with each member of the Lyon family plotting against another to take them down. See, “Pilot” is good at painting a family at war (in fact, the phrase “war” is used multiple times), but it’s not great at painting what keeps the family together besides money, a fact the show seems disinterested in addressing. Sure, it’s willing to paint Luscious as a ruthless man who isn’t rich enough to have someone murder someone else, but is perfectly willing to pit his children against each other for the key to his company, which is about to go public – but it’s not willing to paint Luscious as anything but a hollow shell of the father and human he once was, without any real pathos beyond “He’s a thug at heart” to explain the Joe Jackson-ness of his character.

When Empire does try to build these bonds, they feel unnaturally one-sided; these emotional bonds work best with Henson on screen, with each of her children reconnecting with her in ways that give depth to their characters where Howard’s scenes do not. There’s a nuance to her relationship with Jamal, for example, that I really enjoyed, even while it was force-feeding their bond to us via overt flashback, a device that proves to be a two-sided blade for Empire in many other areas of the pilot. Those flashbacks, often used to build out relationships without relying too much on exposition (even though it still does in a lot of places), are a weird mix of moving performances and cliche stories, shown to the audience with the washed-out camera filters that make dust look really pretty; and at times, can be the best (see: Luscious and Cookie in the car) and the worst (see: Jamal running around in heels, so Luscious throws him in a garbage can) aspects of the pilot.

That yin and yang permeates nearly every scene of Empire, a pilot full of expensive sets and music that’s so slick and over-produced, it’s incapable of conjuring any real kind of emotional reaction. The music of the show is really the most enigmatic thing about it: is it a reflection of the rotten core inside the Lyon family apple, or just the flashy, airbrushed clean production of a show desperate for a white American audience? My pessimistic nature wants to instinctively believe the latter; yet, Howard’s performance conveys something more, even when the script is having him kill long-time friends and pit his children against each other. It isn’t the baroque performance one might assume would come from a Shakespearian father character; it’s really quite measured, even given the hilariously overdone scarves and smooth turtlenecks he’s costumed into; instead, Howard lets Henson play the show-y character, and it pays off in delivering an interesting central dynamic in an otherwise predictable pilot.

It’s impossible whether to tell Empire – like any show that’s existed for one episode – is going to be a good show; if I’m paying attention to the broad story lines and horribly over-produced “melodies” (and while we’re on the topic, Jamal’s “Good Enough” song, laid over flashback sequences, is incredibly trite and on-the-nose), Empire rings incredibly hollow. However, on the smaller scale of performance and inter-personal relationships, Empire‘s first hour presents a much more intriguing television show; only time will tell which identity the show chooses to endorse.

[Photo via FOX]


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