Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Empire Strikes Out

Fox's new musical drama Empire is being touted as the African-American Dynasty.  I fear that may be true.  Though prime time soaps were huge a generation ago, I didn't have much use for shows like Dallas or Dynasty or Falcon Crest or Knot's Landing, and the last thing we need is for this genre to dominate TV again.

When the pilot of Empire started with central character Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) getting an MRI, my heart sank.  It was different in The Sopranos when you had a mob boss with panic attacks.  Then in Breaking Bad, Walter White's terminal diagnosis gave him motivation to start cooking.  But Homeland already had an intriguing premise that wasn't improved by giving Carrie Mathison bipolar disorder.  Worse, in Boss it wasn't enough that Tom Kane is the Mayor of Chicago--he's got to have a degenerative brain disease.  Giving your lead a serious illness has become all the rage, and sure enough, by the end of the pilot, we find out Lucious has ALS.  His doctor gives him three years--more if the show is a hit.

You'd think the central situation would be enough.  Lucious is a former gangsta and hip hop artist who now runs Empire Entertainment, about to go public.  As the show starts, his former wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is released from prison after seventeen years for drug dealing--she was a gangsta in the old days, too, but she got caught.  Meanwhile, he's got three sons, Hakeem, Jamal and Andre, and only one (for some reason) will be allowed to take over when he's gone.  Hakeem and Jamal are both talented artists (I'll take the show's word for it) and it seems Lucious wants an artist to run the place, though why a CEO would find he has two musically talented sons, or want them to go in that direction, I'm not clear.  Oh yeah, also, Lucious is ashamed of Jamal because he's gay (really?), so in a compromise he let's Cookie handle this son's career.  Meanwhile, third son, Andre, is only a Wharton-educated businessman, so why would you want him to be CEO?

As you can tell, the plot is a bit overheated, which I guess is how soaps work.  I didn't even mention how Cookie beats one of her sons with a broom, or how Lucious shoots an old friend in the head when he demands money.  I think the show would like us to see these characters as oversized in a Shakespearean way, but it came off as ridiculous.

The ratings were pretty good, so maybe Empire will last a long time.  It'll have to do it without me.

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