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.
--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.