An ‘Empire’ State of Mind

I may be a little late to the game, but I finally watched the
pilot episode of Fox’s Empire the
other night after hearing my suitemates scream, laugh and cry over it for the
past few weeks. I’ve never been a huge fan of musicals, but this show seems to
have more edge than the typical coming-of-age and playful tales that I’ve seen in the past.

Empire follows the
story of main character, CEO and Founder of
Empire Entertainment Lucious Lyon’s (Terrence Howard) rise from rags to riches
alongside his ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) and their three sons:
Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray). In circumstances preceding the show, the family has been involved in the drug trade and Cookie has been arrested. In the seventeen years since her arrest, the family has gone on to achieve enormous success in the entertainment company. 

However, their comfortable life is all about to
change. The pilot episode begins with Cookie’s release from jail, and Lucious’ recent diagnosis with the incurable disease ALS, giving him only three more years to live—and three sons
to choose from to take over his treasured enterprise.

The opening scene effectively draws me in as it cuts back
and forth between a music studio and a hospital room, juxtaposing the
sound of a beeping heart monitor with the voice of a young female
singer’s ballad. Lucious, haunted by thoughts of his traumatic hospital visit, is giving this woman tough love to bring out the best
in her singing ability.

His colleagues can tell something’s up, but he masks his internal fears
with rage at a sleeping employee and questionable advice
with an unasked-for shoulder massage (“Go back in your mind to a year ago when
you just found out your brother had been shot”). Even though his inappropriate
guidance pushes the singer to her fullest potential, Lucious’s dark side comes through. Immediately, I get the feeling that I’m not supposed to like the show’s antihero protagonist.

The fiery Cookie, on the other hand, is the real all-star of
the series. She is first seen strutting out of prison with elegance:
wearing gold heels to match her gold hoops, an oversized white fur coat and a
tight cheetah-print dress (“Cookie’s coming home”). She has no shame and does
whatever she pleases, like barging into her ex-husband’s office unannounced to
claim back the company that would be nowhere without her.

But before she does that, she pays her beloved son
Jamal a visit at his apartment that he shares with his boyfriend Michael Sanchez
(Rafael de La Fuente), reminding us that family comes before everything. This may seem cliché, but, at times, so is the show. 

While certainly entertaining, the show suffers
from overacting as well as underacting. For instance, when Cookie sees
her youngest, most troubled son Hakeem for the first time, she beats him to a
pulp with a broom. I was unsure if I was supposed to take this seriously or
laugh. The latter seems to be confirmed later by Jamal, who just snickers and
writes it off as Cookie being characteristically crazy. 

A painful scene, shown a few times to illustrate
Lucious’ homophobia against his own son, came across as absurd and completely unrealistic. 

A toddler-aged Jamal marches down the stairs in his mother’s heels
and headscarf to show off to all of his relatives, who look on with disgust. In response, Lucious picks Jamal up, storms out of the house and dumps him
into a trashcan. Cookie saves the scene with her immediate tender love and
care to the shaken Jamal, but the dramatics over such an innocent action came across as an unfair representation of what being gay means. 

Another scene that I struggled with was when Lucious’ doctor
delivers the news of his deadly disease. She strolls into the hospital room with an
awkward smirk on her face, cringes and says, “I’ve got some bad news … You know all those tests we’ve been doing? Kind of confirms it, you got
ALS.” Meanwhile, she’s wearing a cozy, grey knitted sweater and a bright orange

I didn’t know they had ‘Casual Fridays’ at the hospital. But that helps to explains the entire scene—it was weirdly casual and unemotional. Lucious’ reaction
was nonchalant and unaffected. He was just informed of his expiration date, but all he does is shrug it off. 

Made for network television, Empire suffers from the ups and down typical of any weeknight drama. That said, the exaggeration is expected and the high drama makes it more fun to watch. It’s a strong opening to the series and has got me looking forward to next week. 

Will Cafritz PZ ’16 is majoring in media studies with a concentration in film/video. He is from Washington, D.C., and has dual citizenship in Switzerland.

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