Wednesday, January 28, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 4: False Imposition

My bestie and I finally got around to having a conversation about the first three episodes of Empire the other day. While we both agreed that it's a great show, we also realized we love it for similar but ultimately different reasons. She's more interested in the manner that Empire is light, soapy fun, while I believe it has some really deep, meaningful, and important things to say about Hip Hop, being black in America, and homophobia in the black community. She doesn't disagree with me, but she does think they have a little more work to do before they can fully transcend their soapy trappings. For example, we were talking about Lucious' interview from the second episode and what it said about the show's stance on the importance of Hip Hop within urban black spaces. She pointed out that if this was the show's ultimate thesis, then they'd need to get someone who's actually from the streets to make it stick since all of Lucious' kids, at this point, are just second generation rich kids; none of them know the struggle. I pointed out that that's what Lucious is there for, to be that voice within the show, but perhaps the manner in which he seems to have sold out to corporate America works against him in that sense.

This conversation took place last Friday, and now here we have False Imposition and its introduction of Titan and showing us Jamal's new life in poverty since he's turning down his father's money and support, and we can see that Empire has every intention of doing just that. I wish I was humble enough to hate saying when I'm right, but I'm not. It's not that Titan's introduction is wonderfully well handled and nuanced, because like much of what Empire does it's a little rushed and messy, but his presence on the show says that they're ready to go into this other side of the industry. They're ready to showcase an artist who's story is more real and more honest than Jamal and Hakeem's can be. This should be the solidifying story for the show's overall points and messages about the importance and uses of Hip Hop within the proverbial streets. If Hakeem and Jamal aren't suited to showcase just how Hip Hop is a music about a struggle, then Titan certainly is.

But the question of Jamal is still in progress it seems. While it's true that through the first three episodes he wasn't ever capable of being a credible source on the struggle of the streets, his new living situation seems to suggest that that's about to change. I think Jamal's music thus far has always had depth and heart, but that's because he's always been capable of speaking from a place of a different kind of struggle. His struggle for acceptance from his father is a struggle every bit as worthy as the kind of struggle that Lucious and Hip Hop most value. But if there's an element of his music and his story that's long been lacking, it's this one, the fact that he's never really been hungry. Now he'll get the chance to experience first hand that hunger, that pain, that very specific fear of living in a lower class neighborhood. Questioning when and from where your next meal will be coming. Questioning if you'll make it home safe while walking the streets you live on at night. Fearing for your safety within the walls of your own home. These are all things Jamal's never had to experience before but he will now. And notice how the door to his creativity, closed and locked throughout all of the episode, seems to start cracking open when he walks outside of his closed door, when he allows himself to see and hear his surroundings for what they are. Watching him find the music in his immediate area was enthralling, and it really did make me think that Empire's willingness to give us a glimpse into that creative process could be bar none.

Not to be left out of the kids' story, we got the first flashback sequence for Andre this week. It was a simple scene of him singing with his dad and playing with his Legos, but it turned dark quickly when the police showed up to search Lucious' space and, without any coaching or prompting whatsoever, young Andre got up, grabbed his father's gun from its hiding place, and secreted it away amongst his create of Legos. And in that moment, just a bit more of Andre's backstory was filled in. He's the eldest son, the one most likely to lie to the authorities for his father even when he isn't fully sure what he's lying for or about. This is mirrored in the scene where the detective, still nosing around for answers to Bunkie's death, stops by the office and Andre easily lies and says that the he and his father were watching the fight when Bunkie was being killed. Does Andre know that Lucious had something to do with his uncle's death? There's no telling. Given that Lucious had him going to his mayoral contacts for information, it's possible that Andre at least suspects something. But whether he does or not, the fact of the matter is that he's more than ready and able to lie and give his father an alibi when he isn't even forced to do so. Compare that to Jamal's statements from last week about his obedience no longer being for sale, and you've got two characters who couldn't be more different.

But the real gem of this episode is the relationship between Lucious and Cookie. The moment where the two of them are talking about what life in prison can be like when you feel like you've been forgotten is probably the quietest moment Henson and Howard have shared so far, and it shines all the more for it. I enjoy watching the two of the yell and fight one another as much as the next guy, but there's a power and intensity to their quieter scenes that simply cannot be denied. But more than that, I love the way that Cookie is clearly looking out for Lucious and Lucious continues to go to bat for Cookie. They have a kind of frenemy vibe going for them laced with just enough sexual chemistry to keep everything interesting. The moment when Cookie tells Lucious she can help him to get Titan to the label but only if he's ready to reopen dealings with the Nation of Islam is truly touching. As is Lucious' scene tacking Hakeem to task for not respecting his mother.

If one thing's clear through the first 4 episodes of Empire, it's that the show's got its characters more or less down. I've also been saying for awhile now that I trust that the show knows where it's going and what it wants to say in the future. I'm hoping, and expecting, that the introduction of Titan is just a way for them to sure up that position a little bit more. We'll see how the series uses him in the weeks to come, but I'm still not sure there's any reason to be anything other than hopeful that this show's star should continue to be on the ascendant.

Random Thoughts:

--Out has an interesting article about Lee Daniels seemingly opening Timbaland's eyes to his own homophobic prejudices by way of this show. You can find the article here. I don't know how much I buy all of it, to be honest, as it seems a bit like Daniels and Out trying hard to buy into the overall power of the series, but it's a fun read nonetheless.

--From the Hot Mess Pile: I think it's becoming slightly clearer that Empire might need a lesson in consistency. The episode opens with Hakeem making some slightly negative statements about Jamal's musical prospects when I can't recall him being anything but supportive in the past. And then later on in the episode hes back at Jamal's new place being encouraging again. I don't think it's the worst flip flop I've ever seen on TV, and I also don't think that Hakeem's earlier statements were too negative to get away with, but a lot of it felt unearned by the narrative. While it's probable that the competition element is heating up between them, and based on next week's preview it's about to officially come to a head, I just didn't feel like those opening moments were in keeping with what we'd seen prior.

--Between Tiana's seeming disinterest in finding out about Hakeem and Camilla, and Andre and Rhonda's interesting arrangement, the sexual politics of Empire are shaping up to be fascinating if not accurate. I don't have any evidence to back this up, but having spent a lot of time within the black community, I don't think open relationships are nearly as popular with our people as the show might be making it seem. It's still too early to say for sure that that's what they're going for, but we'll see.

--However, with that being said, I think Tiana's reaction to the news that Hakeem is cheating on her is about on par with the viewer's as well. Who cares?

--I'm not sure what to make of Lucious' interaction with his old record label exec. It's probably just another in a long line of complications, but I'll reserve judgement for awhile. At the expense of being a bit cliche though, if this guy (who happens to be Italian) has any mob connections, that could be juicy, soapy fun!

--Also in the not sure what to make of pile: Lucious' expression as Jamal leaves his office. Was he bemused by the mistake his son had just made in turning down the money, or was that respect? Howard plays that little smile for all it's worth.

--I found Anika's story this week to be interesting. It left me wondering how much of her inability is due to how Lucious sees and treats her? She is so seemingly out of place within this world, but she doesn’t lack for confidence. But the moment shit gets real with that drive by, Lucious wants to pull her out. Does this say more about him or about her?

--Also, should we even mention that drive by, or should we just shrug that off?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 3: The Devil Quotes Scripture

Before I get into what I enjoyed about this week's Empire, let me start with what I didn't: I've said it before and I'll say it again, but Empire needs to slow way down. Through 3 episodes we've had more characters and plot points (thought not full on plots or stories to be fair) introduced than you can shake a stick at, and at a certain point in time it just becomes too much to keep straight. I don't think the show has placed itself in a position to need to wrap anything up before starting anything new, but I do think it would benefit from pumping the breaks a little bit and allowing some of the stories its already got up in the air to breath and allow us to get to know the characters we've already been introduced to before they introduced any more.

This week, while the Lyons family worked to shore up the relationship between Hakeem and Tianna, the writers decided it would be a good idea to introduce us to the person Hakeem is actually in love with, Camilla played by the lovely Naomi Campbell. Camilla is an older woman that Hakeem has been secretly seeing for over a year now and who seems to like it when he refers to her as his mother. It makes more sense now why he seems to continue treating his real mother like shit; Hakeem's mommy issues go about as deeply as Jamal's daddy issues, but at least there's reason given behind the latter. Also introduced in this episode was Cuba Gooding Jr's Puma, an old flame and talented songwriter friend of Cookie's, and the deputy mayor who's name I've already forgotten and who happens to be sleeping with Andre whenever he needs information. We learn that Andre's wife, Rhonda, also knows about this arrangement and seems to get off on Andre reenacting their indiscretions while calling her by the deputy mayor's name. So here's another kink to add to their ever growing pile. First the blow job bib, and now some kind of open marriage.  I wish I were surprised, or even remotely interested by these developments, but the truth is that Empire hasn't given me enough time to get to know these characters to feel any kind of way about these things. Were it to slow down a little bit and establish things more, that wouldn't have to be the case.

But that isn't to say that there wasn't any good to be found in this hour. While The Devil Quotes Scripture might be Empire's weakest episode to date, it's still ridiculously entertaining. A lot of this entertainment factor can be found in the episode's centerpiece family dinner. If the show had aired in the fall, this would no doubt have been their Thanksgiving episode. Getting all of these characters in the same room together is every bit as delicious as you would expect. There's sniping, shade, homophobia, underhanded dealings, and backhanded compliments. It's about as much fun as you can have in a short amount of time. If there's a complaint to be had about the dinner sequence it's that it isn't long enough.

One thing this episode does with a vengeance, however, is underline the intended parallels between Jamal and Lucious. It's clear that the show's been heading there for the past 2 episodes, but the writers waste no time in bring it to the forefront here. Each performance Jamal has had in these first three hours have been inter-cut with shots of Lucious. Last week it was Lucious' interview, this week it's flashbacks to scenes of Lucious and Cookie working on the same song she's brought to Jamal's door. On top of that, they waste no time having the characters come out and say what their point is. Both Cookie and Jamal openly remark to Lucious that he's worried Jamal is more of an artist and more talented than he ever was. This realization adds another layer to Lucious' feelings towards Jamal. It's not just that he's homophobic, but that he's also jealous. It also colors his attachment to Hakeem; maybe he isn't backing his youngest son because he believes he's the most talented, but because deep down he knows that that talent is the one least likely to actually threaten him in anyway, or because he knows that that talent is the one least likely to pay off in the long run since Hakeem is ultimately unmotivated to make much of himself. Even this episode starts with Lucious having to berate him for not spending more time in the studio getting an album together. Either way, this is one of the better ways the show has found to add depth and complexity to these characters and their motivations. They should strive to do more of this.

With all of that being said, there's a serious missed opportunity left on the table here. The family dinner at the center of this episode is meant to be a "welcome to the family" moment for Tianna as she embarks on her new relationship with Hakeem. As such, the episode should have spent more time with all of the romantic relationships. Had we seen more of Hakeem and Tianna set against scenes of Jamal and Michael and then scenes of Andre and Rhonda, we could have gotten a better picture of the characters in question as well as the show's point of view of each of their relationships. In a recent interview, series creator Lee Daniels admitted that he wants this show to "blow the lid off" homophobia within the black community. It's a worthy aim, and a goal I think they've clearly been doing a lot to achieve through the first three episodes, but for that to honestly happen, I think the show has to do more than shine a light in the dark areas of the closet of this issue. It needs to take more of a stance. One way it could do that is to showcase Jamal and Michael's relationship as every bit as normal and valid as the heterosexual relationships on the show. The quiet moments between the two that we've seen thus far really do go a long way towards doing that, but I think this episode should have been the moment where the show did more. A slower pace and a tighter focus on just the kids' relationships would have accomplished that.

This week's episode served to remind me just how young Empire is. It had a very sure footed pilot and followed that up with an episode that hinted at a potential greatness for the series in the long run, and while I still stand by my original statement that it "knows what it is, what its about, and how it wants to be about it," for the first time I'm left thinking that there are also slight tweaks that could be made to the "how" that would make everything else just a bit more satisfying. Also, the music wasn't all that great this week, and there's just no excuse for that.

Random Thoughts:

--From the Hot Mess Pile: I don't want to speak ill of the radiant Naomi Campbell, but what the fuck was that entire storyline? Was there maybe a text message between her and Hakeem before now that I'm just forgetting, or did the show just introduce the messiest character in a horribly messy fashion? I just know they can do better than this.

--In keeping with my earlier point about adding some validation to Jamal and Michael, it also would have been nice, and interesting, for Hakeem to stand up for his brother as Jamal was storming out. Telling Lucious that his relationship with Tianna is no more valid than Jamal's relationship with Michael would have been a nice moment. Although I'm also starting to wonder if that's how Hakeem even feels at this point. He clearly loves his brother, but they've never spoken about Jamal's sexuality, so who knows how he really feels about it.

-- How long before Lucious and Cookie sleep together?

--The progression of Lucious' ALS seems a bit fast to me. Not that it wasn't believable, but it makes me wonder how much mileage they're planning on getting out of that storyline, and out of Terrence Howard. Should we expect him to be in a wheelchair or bedridden by the end of the first season?

--One pacing element I'd like to commend the writers on is how quickly they allowed Lucious to find out about Cookie's deal with the feds. The fact that they didn't keep him in the dark about it for long was something I was impressed by.

--The scene between Lucious and Jamal in Jamal's apartment was really interesting. I think the writers could have taken it a little bit deeper in a lot of ways, but there was something seriously powerful about Jamal's statement that he sang that song for Lucious because he loves him, and Jussie Smollett sold the emotion well. The dueling points about Lucious trying to toughen his son up so he could survive "the streets" and Jamal's feeling like he did it just because he hated him was also a nice touch. While I can't agree with how Lucious has dealt with his gay son for all these years, I do think the best thing the show can do is to make his motivations on that front more complicated than just him not liking gay people. To the show's credit, they've started the process of doing that this week.

--Gladys Knight also has a cameo this week. It's a good sign that so many big names want to be involved with this series.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 2: The Outspoken King

There's a moment in this week's episode of Empire that I think might just be a glimmer of the show's overall transcendence. It's during Lucious' interview after Cookie's reaction to the Kid Fofo shooting has been shown. Lucious seems to drop some of the performance for the cameras aspect of his statement and just gets real with the audience. He talks about the way his lyrics reflected where he came from. He talks about the importance of hope to young black artist trying to lose themselves in their lyrics so they won't have to lose their lives in the streets. He talks about the way this art form is about a kind of struggle and suffering that very few other art forms can capture and how important that message still is in a world where Trayvon Martin can still be gunned down in the street for no real reason at all and with no real justice being dealt out for his murder. This moment, underscored as it is by yet another heartfelt performance from Jamal, is a bit on the nose, but that doesn't make it any less important and impactful. Because here's the thing: Empire could be just another primetime soap with little to say about anything of import. It could be little more than a campy exploration of the music industry with no real voice of its own (a la Nashville but we'll talk more about that comparison in a minute), but it doesn't seem at all interested in allowing that to be the case. Instead, Empire seems to be saying that it's got something to say, it's got points to make, and nothing and no one will stop it from making them. When they're made, they'll be made with glaring neon signs and dialogue that leaves no stone unturned and no doubt as to what the show's real message and intentions are. Subtlety will never be this show's middle name, but I don't think anyone will ever find a need to complain about that fact either. In the end, it's this need to say something that will allow this show to transcend genre and become the kind of show we're still talking about many years down the line.

The Outspoken King suffers a bit from the typical second episode malaise a lot of shows seem to find, but it's no less enjoyable for it. All of the characters are reintroduced, the major plot points from the first episode are retouched in a lot of ways, and the groundwork for the show going forward is strengthened; there are also a couple of new plots and new characters introduced.

The episode starts with Cookie showing up at Lucious' house. This mostly serves to introduce the plot point of Lucious' new club, Leviticus (yes he did actually name his club Leviticus), opening and as an excuse to get Cookie and Lucious sniping at each other again. This time, Lucious' new wife, Anika (Grace Gealey)is thrown in the mix for good measure as well. The animosity between these two women is something that I don't think will ever stop paying dividends. But it's the club opening that takes center stage in the ongoing war between the two main characters. Lucious has booked Hakeem to perform at the venue in order to help launch his career, but of course Cookie wants Jamal to play there too. I don't know if the irony of her gay son performing at the opening night of a club named Leviticus ever really dawns on Cookie, but I doubt it's going to be missed by the audience. Again I say that subtlety will not be this show's bread and butter.

Meanwhile, we find out that the other Lyons' son, Andre, is in fact bipolar and his wife Rhonda might not just be the scheming manipulative harpy the first episode made her out to be. At the very least she wears a bib before going down on her husband, so there's that. In truth, the development of Rhonda is one of the better things this episode pulls off. She wants her husband to succeed and she isn't squeamish about doing some underhanded things to ensure that he does, but she's also the only person in his life willing to give him shit and make sure he's working to keep his bipolar disorder under control. We've seen many different iterations of bipolar on TV before, and while I don't think that Empire will handled the mental disorder with the kind of care and finesse that it deserves, I do think it's important for a show to stand up and point out that this is something that can effect people of color too. For now I'll continue to be hopeful that Andre doesn't devolve into a bucket of cliches and stereotypes, but is allowed to be a more fully realized character who just so happens to struggle with this disorder.

After Lucious of course tells her that Jamal will not be on his stage at all, Cookie starts scheming about ways to steal the spotlight from Hakeem and place it firmly on her favored son. With the help of her new personal assistant, Porsha, she decides that the best way to do that is to get Jamal to come out and then give his own performance on the steps of the same building at the same time that Hakeem is performing inside. It's exploitative, sure, but it's also a bit brilliant in a lot of ways. She brings up that the best way for Jamal to kick off his career in the music industry isn't to hide his sexuality but to embrace it and carve out a niche for himself that simply isn't being filled elsewhere. I mentioned the show's comparison to Nashville earlier, and I've mentioned it before and will again, but this is the storyline where I feel the compare and contrast has the most power. I've complained multiple times about Nashville's handling of Will's storyline. The show feels like its taking place in the 90s instead of the present. It knows it wants Will to remain in the closet, but it doesn't really know why. I'm not going to deny that country music is still pretty homophobic in a lot of ways, but in a time when multiple male country music stars are coming out left and right, the show's insistence that Will needs to be closeted to be successful feels disingenuous. Conversely, Hip Hop and R&B are not making the strides towards queer equality that country music seems to be making, and more importantly Empire has Lucious; a father who we've already seen literally throw his son in the trash and threaten to cut him off entirely if he comes out. This isn't to take anything away from Frank Ocean or Angel Haze who happens to be a personal favorite of mine, but the truth is that Ocean is the only queer male individual in the industry now, and he honestly isn't that popular. So there's still a solid difference beteen country music where multiple male stars are coming out simultaneously, and Hip Hop / R&B where you can hardly even name one. There are real steaks and real consequences for Jamal whereas there's only perceived steaks and consequences for Will. Jamal still wants his father's approval (though I doubt that that will last long), and he still needs his financial support. For Jamal, coming out is an honestly scary proposition because he knows in no uncertain terms just what he stands to lose by doing so. But the other difference between the two shows handling of their queer storylines is that Empire at least has characters who are willing to admit that Jamal's coming out could be good for his career. No one's crossed that bridge with Will yet after multiple seasons. Empire at least is willing to engage with both sides of the conversation whereas Nashville simply seems to think that there's no good that can come from admitting that you're gay. This show is just far more progressive than its country music counterpart.

But that isn't to say that the characters all have to be turned into PFLAG joining, rainbow flag waving supporters. At multiple points throughout these first two episodes Cookie has used homophobic language when talking to and about her gay son. She calls him "A gay" at one point this week and I've never laughed harder in my life. This is one of the many ways Empire is allowing its characters to be complex people. Cookie loves her son, and honestly doesn't care that he's gay; she goes to bat for him and truly believes that his sexuality wouldn't be a hindrance at all to him running the company, but she also can't, or at least hasn't yet, transcended the limitations of her own upbringing and life in the streets.

If there's one thing that tends to pull me out of Empire on a week to week basis, I think it's the show's basic cable trappings. While I don't think that the series needs an increase in sex that premium cable would inevitably give it, I do think that some of it's toned down language hurts the general atmosphere the show is trying to build. In truth, this world would feature a lot more N Words and F bombs than Fox will ever let them get away with. I don't think that the way the story is being told detracts from the overall enjoyment of the series, but I for one do find it noticeable. To the show's credit, it isn't forcing the issue and just bleeping the bad language, nor is it trying force in substitute words in places where we know those words should go. It's simply not addressing the issue, which I think is the better way to go. It makes it feel like the show takes place in a world with its own set of rules which make sense. But when the episode then makes references to Obama and Trayvon Martin, I'm forced to remember that the show does actually take place in our world, just a watered down version of our world. And that's perfectly OK.

Random Thoughts:

--From the Hot Mess Pile: I think the storyline with Tianna almost worked this week. I enjoyed her introduction, and even though I find the storyline of the woman who challenges the man by not giving it up as easily as other girls do to be a bit tired at this point, I could have accepted it here. But in order for it to really work, I think she needed to hold out on falling for Hakeem for a bit longer. It should have been something that they strung out over the course of multiple episodes instead of just having it seemingly resolved by the end of this episode.

--Hakeem's little barroom rant about Obama was interesting. It worked well with the themes about what it might mean to be black in a white run world (as seen in Lucious' pivotal interview scene and some of what Cookie was telling him throughout the hour about how he's lost something). It's also a conversation that I know has taken place in black households across the nation since Obama started his first campaign.

--With all of that being said, I don't really think that the show earned the personal phone call between Lucious and Obama scene. Especially with Lucious being on a first name basis with the leader of the free world. I had to roll my eyes at that one.

--Eventually complimenting the acting on this show might get old, but Taraji P. Henson seriously sold the emotion when she got the call about Bunkie's death. She's getting her Emmy reel in order quick.

--The great music of the series continues with the unveiling of the "No Apologies" song which was the cornerstone of most of the show's early promos, another great (but ultimately on the nose) song from Jamal, and that cute and fun pop-y number from Tianna. The music will be the aspect of the series that keeps the show on the air (assuming ratings ever start to slow down), but the stories will be what allows it to be great.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 1: Pilot

Would it be more surprising if Empire were great or if it were horrible? A new show being nearly unwatchable isn't surprising, but when that show stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson and is being helmed by Lee Daniels, I think a certain level of skill is to be expected. Then again, it is a Soap Opera (a Hip Hopera actually), so maybe those expectations are to be tampered down a bit. After the first hour of the show, I'm left thinking that this series is going to have to walk the tightrope line between Holy Shit and Hot Mess. Some moments, maybe even some full episodes, will probably fall firmly on one side of that line or the other, but there's nothing in the first hour to suggest that the trip shouldn't at least be entertaining along the way.

The pilot works double time in an effort to get all of the foundation laid for the season to come. There's flashbacks, painful exposition, characters getting together in all kinds of different pairings so we can see their relationships front and center. Ultimately, I think the episode would be far better if it took a moment to just slow down and catch its breath, maybe save some of this story for a later date, but I won't hold this against the show since pilots tend to be a bit messy one way or another. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let's talk about the story. Lucious Lyon (Howard) is the head of a major Hip Hop record label. He's facing a major health crisis (recently diagnosed ALS), and the major shift of making his label into a publicly traded company. In order for this to work, he wants to officially start the process of naming his heir, and nepotism demands that he pick one of his sons for the task. It could go to his oldest, Andre (Trai Byers) who has worked hard to be involved with the company for all of his life, his middle child, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) who is gay and is sick of trying to gain his homophobic father's approval, or his youngest Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) who's more interested in partying and living the perks of a life as a rap star than anything else. Meanwhile, the boys' mother, Cookie (Henson) has just gotten out of prison on the heels of a long drug related sentence and she's out for blood.

What works best in the pilot typically is the acting  Particularly the brothers all come across as unique and special individuals possessing a kind of iciness that can only be found amongst people who've grown up together and suffered through enough of the same experiences to make them resentful. I especially loved the dynamic between Hakeem and Jamal who are close in spite of what you'd assume given how different they are, and who have seemed to have banded together in a strong and mutual dislike of Andre. Watching them all interact with each other was more than enough to form an image of what their lives as children must have been like.

Howard and Henson also provide stellar performances though I think the two of them descend (or maybe it's ascend) to melodrama a time too often. Henson shines in her moments with her sons. The story of a mother seeing her children again after a long incarceration is honestly touching. She meets with all three boys individually over the course of the episode and each meeting is charged with a different type of energy that perfectly showcases her unique relationship with each of her sons. And Henson's face is often more than enough to show what Cookie's expectations for these meetings were and how those expectations have been met, surpassed, or disappointed. Henson and Howard's scenes together might leave a little to be desired, but that's the script's fault and not the actors themselves.

I think a mark of TV today might be the manner in which it's handling certain "Issues," and on that front I think Empire might be uniquely placed. Within the first episode, we can see the show gearing up to tackle, or at least touch on, interracial dating, homophobia within the black and Hip Hop community, ALS (a disease that doesn't get talked about in fiction often. I honestly thought Lucious would just have cancer and the show would call it a day), and possibly even mental health issues with Andre. The episode also opens with a beautiful song being recorded by a lovely female artist. Granted she's not seen again for the rest of the episode, but it opens the door for the show to address how hard it is for women to make it in this industry. How the show handles these issues going forward will probably have a lot to do with how "good" it ends up being, but I'm choosing to be hopeful rather than skeptical in that regard.

The one element of the show that I think could cause it to transcend into greatness would be it's willingness to zig when you expect it to zag. The clearest possibility of this so far exists in the relationship between Hakeem and Jamal. Their parents are clearly set on pitting them against each other, but their bond throughout most of the episode seems really solid. It would be a lot more fun, in my opinion, to watch that remain the case for the foreseeable future causing all of their parents', and their brother's, schemes to fail in the process. But the show seems determined to take a more predictable route as far as that storyline is concerned. That's not to say that the predictable story won't be entertaining, but it is predictable after all.

I left the Pilot episode of Empire wonderfully entertained and guardedly optimistic about the future of the story. I don't think there's anything wrong with Soap based stories or melodrama. Indeed, early seasons of Nashville, Revenge, and Scandal, have proven that Soap is not an indication of quality. But I do think that those shows had a kind of balance between their solid characters and storytelling and their more grandiose moments which Empire hasn't necessarily found yet. The quieter moments of this episode ring truer than the bigger, sillier, more operatic moments do. But at its core, I think Empire knows what it is, what its about, and how it wants to be about it, and I think that that's very rare praise for a show this early in its development. We'll see in the upcoming weeks if I'm right or not.

Random thoughts:

--In one of the more telling flashback sequences, Lucious punishes a young Jamal for walking down the stairs and into the crowded living room in high heels and a feminine head wrap while Cookie races to his defense. I won't make any excuses for why this is my favorite story. As a gay black man, I've seen and experienced this kind of thing more than often enough. But here I was mostly just surprised that Jamal wasn't rewarded for making it down the stairs in one piece in high heel shoes. I know grown women who can't even accomplish that.

-- Gabourey Sidibe also has a guest staring role in the show, and I'm hoping she becomes a series regular before long. Her fiery attitude towards Lucious and her adorable friendship with Jamal coupled with what I've always thought of as a prodigious acting talent make her well worth watching every week.

--From the Hot Mess Pile this week: The entire storyline with Bunkie Campbell just never really worked. I think the character was meant to show us things about Lucious and Cookie more than anything else, but I can't help but to wonder if there wasn't an easier way to show us those things. We don't know these characters yet so him walking into Lucious' house and drawing a gun on him to demand money after an episode of them at least seeming to be close friends doesn't make sense. And his death by the end of the episode doesn't have any emotional resonance or shock value, which is what I think they were going for. I don't know the characters enough to care or be surprised that they'd act in this way.

--Special shout out to Lee Daniels' direction of this episode. Especially some of the music sequences were intercut in a manner that I found to be compelling.

--One more thing I didn't care for in the episode was the characterization of Andre's wife. I feel like the "scheming, money grubbing, white woman married to and mooching off of her successful black husband" trope is something we've seen more than enough times by now.