If there is a more absurd hour of television than what we just saw on the series premiere of Empire, we haven’t seen it lately. Fox’s hip-hop soap opera — headlined by Terrence Howard as record industry tycoon Lucious Lyon and Taraji P. Henson as his fresh-out-of-prison ex-wife Cookie Lyon — held no punches in its debut. From uncomfortable language to gasp-inducing scenes of child abuse, Empire is good for those who like their entertainment to be ridiculous.
In the pilot, Lucious is getting ready to take his company, Empire Entertainment, public. This is a very big deal for someone like Lucious, who grew up on the streets of Philadelphia immersed in a world of violent crime and drug dealing. At the same time he is about to achieve this major career milestone, his personal life is beginning to unravel.
First, his ex-wife Cookie has just been released from her 17-year stint behind bars and she wants half of her record company back. Then, Lucious’ three sons, all of whom he has issues with, are ill-suited in his eyes to take over his company should Lucious one day die. And that day is no more than three years away because his doctor has diagnosed him with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or what is more commonly known as ALS.
Tucked into these major story arcs is a bunch of drama. There’s the middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who happens to be gay. He’s out to his family, but it’s hardly all good to his parents.
A flashback scene of the family’s early years is especially disturbing. When a too-young-to-know-anything Jamal walks out of his parents room wearing his mother’s shoes, Lucious picks him up, takes him outside, and literally puts him in a trashcan. It’s a disturbing moment, especially considering Howard said to the press that Lee Daniels, one of the show’s executive producers and the pilot episode’s director, went through that exact incident in his own childhood.
Cookie comes to save her son, of course, then looks at Lucious all crazy — but she’s hardly the good to Lucious’ evil. She too suffers from the same type of ignorance as her ex-husband, calling Jamal a “faggot” in a conversation with Lucious. Oh, and upon seeing Jamal’s boyfriend Michael (Rafael de la Fuente), she says to her son, “I didn’t know you were dating a little Mexican.” We don’t know if Michael is actually Mexican.
The fact that Jamal is the most talented among the Lyon boys is probably the only reason his parents don’t attempt to disown him. Not only do they need him to make hits, but they also need him to help make the youngest Lyon, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), hip-hop’s next big thing. Hakeem is a millennial rapper who cares more about stardom than art. He needs hit records like “Right There” just so he can stand on a couch and in a club with a bottle and sing the hook, “What’s that over there? That’s that ish right there.”
Meanwhile, Andre (Trai Byers), the oldest of the Lyon boys, is more obsessed with his responsibilities as CFO of Empire Entertainment, a position he believes makes him the rightful heir to Lucious (and arguably Cookie’s throne). Too bad Andre is a square and, as you might expect, the least interesting of the three sons, a fact that isn’t lost on the dynamic Lucious, who believes that even if you’re in a suit, a true boss must shine.
It’s hard to tell who will become the most talked about character in this series, mostly because nearly every character is giving you something to talk about. Cookie and Lucious are unapologetically offensive to damn near everyone, all while sporting some of the most audacious sartorial choices you will find on television.
Lucious himself turns out to not be as far removed from the streets as we think, because he fires a bullet straight into the head of his longtime friend, Bunky, at one point. Cookie can never seem to call Jamal by his real name, referring to him instead as “Sissy.” Hakeem calls his mother a “bitch,” to which Cookie responds by beating him with a broomstick. Andre is in an interracial relationship with a white woman, which is perfectly fine to everyone except his mother.
Empire is a lot, to put it mildly. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing will take some time to determine, but there’s no denying there’s a lot to talk (and tweet) about with this show. We’ll be watching next week.