Empire is a ratings phenomenon unlike anything on television in years, or maybe ever. The number of people watching each episode has increased without fail for each of the show’s nine episodes. It’s handily outdoing American Idol, once an unstoppable phenomenon, now Fox’s Wednesday night warmup act. The social media buzz is off the charts, with GIFs of Cookie being Cookie and clips from the original songs reliably popping up on Twitter each week.
All of this buzz prompts the question: is the show, created by Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and Danny Strong (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire screenwriter and onetime Mad Men recurring character), any good?
The answer is complicated. I watched all eight of the show’s non-pilot episodes in one fell swoop yesterday afternoon, and I’m not sure I’d call Empire good so much as savvy.
Quick plot summary for the few uninitiated out there: hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) decides to take his entertainment company Empire public in anticipation of dying from the incurable disease ALS. One of his three sons (Bryshere Gray, Jussie Smollett, Trai Bryers) will inherit the company when Lucious dies. Oh, and Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) emerges from jail eager to get her hands on her share of the company. (There’s tons more, but that’s enough to get you started.)
The juicy cliffhangers pull viewers easily from one episode to the next, even if their resolution in subsequent episodes leaves something to be desired. None of these revelations feels more egregious and unfulfilled than the arrival of Raven-Symone as Jamal’s ex-wife, now toting a young boy who she claims Jamal fathered. Similarly, Jamal’s vow to fight for his place in the Empire empire (#onthenose) goes largely unsubstantiated in subsequent episodes, when he goes back to being the docile, borderline saintly nice brother, albeit now with slightly more drive towards celebrity status.
The catchy songs, produced by the show’s music supervisor Timbaland, serve as agreeable facsimiles of modern radio R&B, even though they often don’t track with the characterizations the show wants us to swallow. Lucious Lyon is supposed to a be a Jay-Z/Diddy rapper-turned-mogul type, but we haven’t heard any of his rap songs, and his most prominently displayed musical accomplishment so far appears to be “You’re So Beautiful,” which is more John Legend than Tupac Shakur. Meanwhile, Lucious’ son Hakeem attracts controversy for the misogyny of his lyrics, but they seem positively tame compared to the actual pop music that invades the current pop airwaves. Broadcast content restrictions obviously play a role in these cut corners, and no one expects Empire to invent a brilliant rapper out of whole cloth – if it were that easy, everyone would do it! – but it often seems like the show think it’s fooling viewers even when it’s clearly not.
Though the characters toss around the term “authenticity,” that word’s complex layers of meaning go unexplored. Lucious Lyon describes the hot new rapper Titan as “the most authentic artist since Tupac Shakur,” which is such a ludicrous declaration on so many levels that it almost seems like the show signaling to viewers that Lucious’ tastes are fallible, or perhaps wavering in his later years. But the show never quite commits one way or the other. Perhaps some outside perspective would help. How does the outside world view Empire? Is Lucious Lyon this fictionalized version of America’s Jay Z or its Diddy? Or does he exist in some other corner of the pop culture atmosphere?
On the other hand, perhaps the insularity of Empire is appealing, or even true to life. Much as we like to think that the men in suits making judgment calls about the people who make music for our entertainment and consumption have our best interests at heart, the truth is that most of those men in suits don’t even understand our best interests, let alone want to serve them. Empire feels enclosed by the significance of its brand, walled off from America’s tastes and enamored with its own success. It’s not hard to extend that image into a critique of Jay Z’s recent output – what was once a pioneering artistic force is now no more than a profit-generating machine.
Empire isn’t as interested in delving into these real-life parallels as I am in drawing them out. That’s fine. I wouldn’t dare imply that the people making this show need to worry that anything they do will alienate their viewers – that ship has sailed, it seems. The show’s ambitions rest primarily in making the audience gasp, laugh and occasionally tear up. Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson bring lush nuance to their characters even when the scripts let them down. Jussie Smollett more than holds his own in the show’s most heavy-handed storyline (and that’s saying something – there are more than enough heavy hands to go around). And the show’s style might best be described as restrained opulence, an agreeable look for a show of such heightened emotional magnitude. In some ways, this show might be best appreciated as a “binge-watching” experience, with no time to ponder the narrative inconsistencies and thematic weaknesses. (I watched it all while I was sick, which also helped me detach from thinking too much.)
Much like the entertainment company’s current marketing strategy, the goal is generating moments of appreciation rather than a cohesive whole. If Lucious Lyon and company need tips on how to tailor their product to America’s tastes, I’d suggest they take a look at the strategy for Empire. If nothing else, that’s good business.
(Photos courtesy of Chuck Hodes, Fox)