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.

No comments:

Post a Comment