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.

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