Fox’s new hip hop industry drama Empire is the network’s best new artist. But is the show a one-hit wonder?
In case you haven’t heard, Empire killed it in the ratings in its debut Wednesday night. This is good news, both for Fox which has been languishing this season but also for dramas on broadcast television.
Empire is about Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a hip hop mogul and record company CEO who is trying to map out his company’s future to make sure it stays a family business. After announcing his plans of taking the label public, the next step is to prep one of his three sons as a successor:
- Andre (Trai Byers), who is Empire’s CFO and the eldest;
- Jamal (Jussie Smollett), an aspiring singer-songwriter whose homosexuality does not jibe with his father’s worldview;
- Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), Lucious’ favorite who fancies himself as the second coming of Lil Wayne.
Further complicating things is the return of Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who spent the last 17 years in prison for drug offenses. She fronted a hefty sum of money to launch the Empire label way back when and says immediately after her release “I’m here to get what’s mine.”
Here’s the thing: Henson’s line reading, coupled with the wardrobe and established stakes, came across as a laugh line. This show taps into the soapiest parts of Scandal, right down to Terrence Howard channeling Tony “President NyQuil” Goldwyn’s upper sinus pressure performance.1 The family drama is straight outta
Compton Downton or Revenge, which takes this down from prestige drama to popcorn TV.
Unfortunately, what ultimately holds Empire back is being on broadcast TV. We hear several snippets of the track Hakeem is working on. One is a rehearsal for a performance where he keeps using the word “ish” and the other is a moment when Lucious and Cookie are listening to what is likely the radio edit of the track. If this show were on basic cable—or a network that aired after 10pm—these problems would be less noticeable, but they are distracting enough to pull the viewer out of the moment.2
The pacing of the pilot worked and there are enough story elements to hook into that should help Empire maintain flow for the remainder of the season. The writing needs to be less exposition-y moving forward—a conversation between Andre and his girlfriend sounded more like a writers’ room breaking a story—but that’s forgivable in a pilot episode. Truth be told I was lukewarm about Empire when I started this post, but I have convinced myself to stick with it for a few more episodes. You should too.