Review: In hip-hop-fueled ‘Empire,’ ‘King Lear’ meets ‘Dynasty’
“What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” asks Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), the middle son of music tycoon and former recording star Luscious Lyon (Terrence Howard) in the opening episode of “Empire,” a sparkly, sometimes-soulful new family-epic prime-time soap premiering Wednesday on Fox.
“And ‘tis our fast intent/To shake all cares and business from our age,/Conferring them on younger strengths while we/Unburthen’d crawl toward death,” Luscious has just said. Or words to that effect, indicating to his three sons that he will be passing on his kingdom in the perhaps not-too-distant future.
And although he has not asked them to say who loves him best, he has asked them to prove themselves and in so doing has stirred trouble convenient to the purposes of creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (respectively, the director and writer of the 2013 film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”).
Strong has, indeed, said that he wanted to make a hip-hop “Lear.” But Daniels has also said that he wanted to make “a black ‘Dynasty.’” They have both gotten their wish, and though the result can be obvious, even cornball, at times, the show — which is smart enough, often enough — works.
Like “Nashville,” “Empire” uses the music business as a setting and music as a spice. (Timbaland is the series’ “executive musical producer.”) But “Empire” has a tighter dramatic focus and a more clearly delineated premise: All the stories tie back to Luscious, his family and his company, with the characters arrayed in legible (not necessarily unchangeable) positions of competition and cooperation.
Its dramatic verities are the sort that not only stirred the groundlings at Shakespeare’s Globe but also kept “Dallas” going for 14 seasons — 17 if you figure in the reboot.
Jamal and his brothers come in three distinct flavors. Older brother Andre (Trai Byers) is college-educated and conservatively styled, with a head for business and a yen for power; younger brother Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is a kind of hip-hop caricature, with rich-kid habits. (“You’re wasting your talents on bitches and booze,” Luscious tells him.)
A singer-songwriter sort with light Bohemian trappings, Jamal is gay, to the consternation of his father, who believes it’s “a choice.” Luscious is troubled at least in part by the effect his sexuality might have on Jamal’s record sales, but Jamal — an artist! — is not much concerned. As his mother points out, “You’re so pure, only a couple of hundred white kids in San Francisco and Brooklyn even know your stuff.”
Mother is Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), back after 17 years in prison and back “to get what’s mine.” Hers is the character you can’t help watching.
Howard, who starred opposite Henson in the 2005 film “Hustle & Flow” — in which he played a character not unlike Luscious’ younger self — has an appropriately regal, leonine appeal: He’s like a Golden Age Hollywood star, if they’d had black stars in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
But Henson owns the pilot. She elevates every scene she’s in and every actor she plays against, brings music and truth and a whole person to even the least promising line. She grounds the more sensational ones (“I’m going to make him a star, and I will take down anything that gets in my way”), even as she can make a whole story out of “Hello.”
She’s sexy, maternal, fearsome, fearful, physical and funny. It helps, certainly, that hers is the most interesting storyline and that her character’s mind is the liveliest; but there’s magic in there too.
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)
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