Saturday, February 14, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 6: Out, Damned Spot

I've been sitting with my thoughts on this episode for the last couple days and I still don't fully know what to say. I think this week's Empire is the weakest the show has been thus far, but I don't think it was a boring or a bad episode. If we start with the good, I've got to say I like the focus on Jamal and Michael's relationship. They've always been cute and a high point of the series for me, but their scenes until now have mostly been the two of them being adorable with one another and not much more. I think a cute lovey relationship is great, but without some kind of complication it won't be believable. They get complicated, and it makes them seem more real than they were before, but I'm not sure how I feel about the tone of the storyline thus far. More on that in a bit.

Also in the good category is the introduction of a couple new guest stars. While I don't know that I like Elle (played by Courtney Love) or Olivia (played by a fired up Raven-Symone) just yet, I do maintain that the show's ability to draw in stars of this caliber bodes well down the line. Which isn't to say that either Love or Symone are a-listers or anything, but still, it was nice to see their faces.

Sadly I think that that's about where my compliments end this week. "Out, Damned Spot" was a bit of a mess in a lot of ways, but more importantly it was evidence that Empire hasn't got a very strong grasp on its serialized storylines thus far. Where was the fallout from Cookie having an innocent man murdered last week? The show going away from Tiana for an episode isn't a problem, but why has the Titan storyline, a story I thought should be a cornerstone for the show thematically going forward, not been brought up again since its introduction. Partially my frustration with this is rooted in my own opinion that that shouldn't have been a one time throw away episodic plot point. But the other part of my annoyance has to do with the fact that the other aspect of that story (Lucious' dealings with the nation of Islam) seemed to be seeds that could and should have germinated into full bloom by now. Or at least the buds should be opening. Instead the show's simply forgotten that it dropped that juicy tidbit for us at all and is on to other things.

The big stories are still progressing. Lucious' ALS takes another large step forward and he starts a highly unsafe (and really stupid) experimental drug trial which isn't even legal in the States. In the stand out moment of the episode, Cookie finds out that Lucious and Anika are getting married and blows up at them both. The entire episode was well worth it to see Taraji Henson in that sexy lingerie though. And Hakeem continues to spiral in the wake of his discovery about Tiana cheating on him. But while those stories are all touched on here, nothing really moves decidedly forward. There are more beginnings in this episode than there are middles or endings, and that just leaves it feeling kind of aimless.

And some of the beginnings in questions might leave a bit to be desired. As I stated before, I enjoyed the fact that Jamal and Michael were getting complicated in this episode, but the idea that Michael was worried he'd get left behind in favor of fame and fortune and the only way to combat that is for Jamal to agree that they go away for a weekend felt a bit hackneyed. I don't think that those concerns are invalid in any way, but I do think that we've seen that story a million times before and played out in many different ways, so do we really need to see it here. I don't think that Michael's pain at being dismissed by Jamal's statement that there isn't anyone important in his life right now is the wrong way for the story to go. I think the show's insistence on showcasing the homophobia in the black community has to include the ways in which that homophobia can be internalized. Cookie is seen off stage while Jamal is giving his interview, and her reaction shots to the questions are left open to interpretation. Is she warning him not to do it, or is she commiserating with him that this moment was inevitable and she knows it's tough but he has to make his own decision? I'm inclined to think the latter given her previous interest in throwing lavish coming out press conferences for him, but the truth is that I'm not sure. The scene between Cookie and Michael, and a later scene between her and Jamal suggest that she might have some reservations after all. If she's not concerned that her son is dating another man, then she's at least not happy about the man he's chosen.

Which brings me to another problematic aspect of the episode: Cookie doesn't think Michael is right for Jamal because he wants to be a chef? Don't get me wrong, I understand that Cookie would value ambition over what she might see as settling for a regular job, but I think the show should steer clear of the suggestion that finding something other than music or art that you enjoy and are good at and pursuing it as a career is somehow an unworthy goal. And in any event who's to say that Michael doesn't have ambitions of opening his own restaurant some day? I don't think Cookie's position should be that Jamal find someone in the same line of work or with the exact same drive and passion as himself.

All of that combines to make up what I thought was the weak link in an otherwise strong chain of six episodes. I don't think the series has stumble so hard that it can't recover, but it needs a return to stories that feel fresh, and to remember the stories that made it more than just a simple nighttime soap. I think primetime soap is a fine thing to be if that's all you're striving for, but I think Empire wants to be more and it's shown itself as capable of being more, but in order for it to accomplish that it needs to not peter out at the midway point of its first season.

Random Thoughts:

--Really Michael? You want to go to Fire Island? Do gay men in New York really still go to Fire Island? I haven't been, so I speak from no point of authority on this, but that line felt like it was written by a straight man who has only read about what gay men do in books.

--Also in the really Michael? category: expecting Jamal to just drop everything and go away for the weekend. I mean in his defense, if Jamal agrees to do something, I think he could try a little harder to keep his promise, but I think we all know it was an unreasonable request to begin with. No one with a new job can just drop everything at the drop of a hat and go away for a stretch of time, so expecting Jamal to be able to do so when he's embarking on something way bigger than just a regular nine to five is a bit silly.

--I think we'll skip the hot mess pile this week since the entire episode was a bit of a hot mess.

--Andre: “You ever put your hands on me again, I’ll slit your throat.” Was it just me or was that the single funniest line of the episode. And the extent of just how earnest he was when he said it just made it all the funnier. He's cute when he gets angry and thinks he actually has some level of power. If he really thinks Uncle Vernon couldn't break him without even breaking a sweat then he's even dumber than he looks.

--This episode was a fairly nice showcase for Malik Yoba who I've thought has been under utilized thus far. Hope we get to see more of him.

--Also hope we get to see more of Derek Luke's Malcolm the security specialist in the weeks to come. I'm already shipping him and Cookie like there's no tomorrow. Plus Derek Luke is a ridiculously talented and exceptionally good looking guy, so the more of him the better it will be for everyone.

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