Critic’s Notebook: ‘Empire’ reigns among viewers on strength of characters and cast
It is always amusing to watch the entertainment industry reel with the “discovery” that audiences are nowhere near as narrow-minded and bigoted as previously assumed. And by “amusing,” I mean infuriating.
The success of Fox’s drama “Empire,” which ends its first season Wednesday, has left far too many stuttering with “whys” and “hows,” as in “why was it such a big hit?” and “how can we replicate it?”
The answers are obvious: “Because it’s very good” and “You can’t, so please, dear God, don’t try.”
But when discussing “Empire,” it’s all about subtext. Everyone seems so shocked/encouraged by its audience numbers — they have risen weekly — not just because big numbers for an hourlong drama are unusual in today’s hyper-competitive entertainment world, but because of the demographic crossover those numbers represent.
Dealing with the rarely explored music industry, and using actual music to do so, “Empire” has a predominantly black cast and yet, defying conventional wisdom, appeals to everyone; according to the network, well over a third of its weekly viewership is not black.
Why, yes, oh guardians of the green light, as most people of color and women already know, many viewers are quite capable of enjoying entertainment that does not mirror their actual mirrors.
Many men will, indeed, watch comedies about women, heterosexuals do not burst into flames if a TV show revolves around gay characters, boys will root for action-adventure heroines and white folks will watch a series in which there are few to no white folks.
Audiences will, in fact, watch and applaud just about anything about anybody if — and this is very important — it’s any good. And “Empire” is very good, for the same reasons any show is very good: the writing and the performances. Which is to say the characters.
The music helps, certainly — like Westeros or the Pawnee city hall, Empire Records provides a new world for audiences to explore and a vaguely operatic way to explore it.
But television lives and dies by its characters, and “Empire” is a radiant showcase of strong, complicated and modern archetypes, splendidly performed, and constantly rearranged in dazzling display.
When it debuted, the premise seemed familiar to the point of Shakespearean. King Lear by way of Macbeth, record mogul Lucious Lyon (the irreducible Terrence Howard) has bloody hands, a treacherous mind, one kingdom and three children. Diagnosed with ALS, he must decide which of his wildly disparate sons — brilliant and uptight Andre (Trai Byers), hothead rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) or the talented and gay Jamal (Jussie Smollett) — will best preserve his legacy.
Enter Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and exit Lucious’ plans. Followed closely by Shakespeare; even the Bard knows when he’s beat.
With her Wild Kingdom prints, clear-the-floor walk and all the best lines, Cookie is a thoroughly modern woman, owing way more to “Orange Is the New Black” and “Nurse Jackie” than she does any ancient playwright. Shakespeare wouldn’t have any idea what to do with Cookie Lyon, besides try to tame her. Like that would ever happen.
Cookie is no shrew, nor is she a schemer. She is a survivor and, more important, a character increasingly at the heart of epic television: the indestructible truth teller.
With an intoxicating home brew of wit, wisdom, narcissism and pathos, these characters — Tyrion on “Game of Thrones,’ the Dowager Countess on “Downton Abbey,” Saul on “Breaking Bad” — keep ambitious narratives from becoming turgid, self-conscious or fatally dependent on sex and violence.
And they do it by describing the world as it actually is.
Cookie has plenty of plans, but her best tool is not guile; it’s clarity. From her early recognition and acceptance of Jamal’s sexuality to her recent, hilarious takedown of the faux-thug rep of a competing label — “You ain’t no G. You’s a mark. I did 17 years in the feds. I know a busta when I see one. Mark!"— Cookie’s hashtag appeal may be her willingness to call it like she sees it. But her narrative importance is that she sees what others don’t.
Including and especially how Lucious is the author of his own misfortune, the hallmark of epic tragedy.
Henson’s remarkable high-wire performance has made her the people’s princess of “Empire,” but proof of the show’s greatness is that it is nothing like a one-woman show. There is no Cookie without Lucious. And there is no Lucious without Howard.
As is often mentioned, Henson and Howard worked together in the similarly genre-defying film “Hustle & Flow,” and the performers’ easy chemistry and obvious mutual admiration go far in establishing the critical relationship of the story. Lucious, as we meet him, is as ailing in soul and spirit as in body.
Power has had its way with him, and he has been corrupted absolutely. Wielding one of the lightest touches in the business, Howard allows audiences to view Lucious without either loathing or pity. Instead, he dallies and he gathers and he plucks and he shines, a modern-day music man, more destructive and broken than Meredith Wilson’s original but just as self-deluded.
Which is why he reacts with horror and secret joy when Cookie returns to him — there are many broken self-deluded men on television, but few have the aid of their own personal truth teller.
“Empire” is a song of many voices — the brothers have all had scenes of high drama, unexpected poignancy and general hilarity, and don’t get me started on Cookie’s assistant Porsha (Ta’Rhonda Jones). But it soars because the smartest, fiercest, funniest person in the room is also the hero: Cookie has come not to divide and ransack but to heal and save.
And she’s not afraid to take a bat, a broom or a “Boo-Boo Kitty” to anyone who gets in her way.
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