The real-life music biz is brimming with juicy storylines. But the drama runs even deeper on new series Empire.
The show centers on cutthroat label head Lucious Lyons (Terrence Howard), who is forced to relinquish Empire Entertainment to one of his three sons after a doctor diagnoses him with ALS and says he has at most three years left. Lyons says that only one son can run the company: As the most senior and business-savvy, Andre (Trai Byers) seems like the natural successor, but Lyons would rather have a label head who’s an artist, an illogical decision that leaves problem-child rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) and singer Jamal (Jussie Smollett) competing for the spot.
It’s the latter who proves more levelheaded, but his biggest obstacle is his father, who criticizes his homosexuality as “a choice” — a storyline that could be affecting if explored further in future episodes. The stakes are raised even higher when the family matriarch, Lyons’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), a former drug dealer fresh out of prison, successfully negotiates a stake in the label (which her illegal profits helped finance) and establishes the show’s real focus: a family driven by greed and schemes.
While Henson is mostly enjoyable in her turn as a ruthless comic foil, Howard oversells Lyons’ menace, making him hard to empathize with. During one flashback in the pilot that proves more distasteful than compelling, Lyons shoves a young Jamal into a garbage can after catching his son playing dress-up in heels. The hokey melodrama and dialogue that screams telenovela (when Jamal asks his mother about her post-prison plans, Cookie says ominously, “I’m here to get what’s mine”) threaten to overshadow the show’s alluring concept.
But the oversimplified portrayals of the industry could be the drama’s biggest falling. Even a non-insider would cringe at Lyons’ archaic speech about the dying biz, as delivered during a board meeting where he announces Empire as a publicly traded company. “The Internet has destroyed the musician’s ability to make money because our work is downloaded for free online,” he opines dramatically. There’s potential for a rich depiction of what happens when music is the family business, but Empire will have to dig a lot deeper to reach it.