Wednesday, February 18, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 7: Our Dancing Days

I think that sometimes it can be easy to forget that at its core Empire is about family. Or at least it ostensibly wants to be about family; on a week to week basis, Empire is about a million different things. But the show is rooted in family and I think most of its best moments stem from that root. If the chaos of the last couple episodes caused anyone to forget this important point, then here comes "Our Dancing Days" to help us remember.

But before the episode can be all family all the time, there's some fallout from last week they need to take care of. Namely, Michael's leaving Jamal. After he refused to come out during his interview last week, Michael has decided that it's a better idea to end things now before it gets worse. I've spoken before about Empire's refusal to slow its storytelling down and how that works both for and against the show at times, this is an example of the latter. How are we supposed to feel about Michael's decision? For that matter, how are we supposed to feel about Michael? Is he the first casualty of Jamal's meteoric rise to fame, or is he just a selfish nearsighted weakling who doesn't have the guts to stick it out. If I'm being honest, I'm inclined to take option number two, and I kind of think the show feels that way as well. Over the course of the last two episodes both Cookie and Lucious have mentioned that Michael isn't the one for Jamal because he doesn't understand how hard it is to love an artist. And in the end, they're right. I don't know that it necessarily is harder to love an artist than it is to love anyone else, but I do know that given the way the story has gone, Michael doesn't seem to have been cut out for it. It's not that Michael's desire to be acknowledged publicly (as well as privately) isn't valid, of course it is, but if he's unable to understand that at least for the moment he's got to be ok with being second to Jamal's young career, then he really isn't worth Jamal's time. In a situation where Michael has been number one for the duration of time that they've been dating, I don't think Jamal was asking too much expecting him to take a backseat briefly while his music took off.

Therefore, lines like Michael's "No I love you, you love music," don't feel earned. Every so often, Empire is going to fall into the trap of playing up it's soapy elements a bit more than it probably should, but something like the Michael--Jamal dilemma simply doesn't work. By rushing through the plot and forcing the story to take place over the course of two episodes, it leaves the entire thing feeling hollow. It also says something very negative about a character I had grown to like. It's really not that the storyline is a bad one for the show to run with, it's just that it doesn't make sense for it to happen in the 7th episode of a 12 episode season. Especially when the seeds for it were only planted one episode ago. For what I'm sure won't be the last time, I have to tell Empire to slow the hell down!

While the relationship drama fell flat this week, the family drama was perfect. Everything from Lucious falling sick at the beginning of the hour and being forced to pick Anika over Cookie to accompany him to the hospital, to the ongoing feud between Jamal and Hakeem, to the scene where Lucious finally comes clean about his ALS worked wonders. In life, things change, and of course in Empire things change rapidly, but family is the one constant. That's accentuated in this episode in the scene between Lucious and Jamal, and of course in the scene where Lucious tells his family about his illness. The Lucious--Jamal scene is the latest of many, but I think it might also be the best one yet. For what seems like the first time, they aren't yelling or insulting one another, they aren't at each other's throats, they're simply being there for one another. Jamal, in a moment that I do think reeks of the show's particular penchant for throwing consistency out the window, goes to his father for solace over Michael leaving and over the mess he finds himself in with his new found daughter. Lucious, to his credit, actually offers kind words of wisdom and some serious help on both fronts. He even expresses his hope that one day Jamal will meet a person who can love him the way he deserves. He says person! It's not as much of a victory as it would have been if he had said man, but it's no where near as dismissive as it would have been if he had said woman, so that's some serious progress for Lucious Lyons.

The capper to tonight's episode is of course the scene where Cookie and Lucious finally find themselves in bed together after 7 episodes of sexual tension so thick you could cut it with a knife. The entire thing is soapy and a bit contrived, but the fact that it's been building for the entire season at least allows it to make a certain kind of sense. Is it hackneyed that Cookie and Lucious sleep together after he shows himself to be vulnerable and tells her about his ALS? Of course it is. Is it horribly played out that Anika just so happens to come home and catch them sleeping together? You know it! But it's the payoff to 7 long hours of the two of them flirting around the issue, and of Henson and Howard lighting the screen on fire with their chemistry, so we'll take it.

Cookie and Lucious is actually the closest thing to a slow burn that the show has had thus far. While the two of them haven't come a long way from where they were in that pilot episode, the seeds for this development have certainly been germinating long enough for it to work. It was obvious and predictable is so many ways, but it was something the writers took their time getting to and allowed to develop organically. The best case scenario moving forward would be that they found the patience to treat more of their storylines this way and fewer of them the way they treated Jamal and Michael. I don't expect that to be the case, but I certainly hope that it is.

Random Thoughts:

--Even though I've felt that the Hakeem and Jamal rivalry of the last few episodes has been a bit forced, their truce in this episode, however brief it might turn out to be, was highly moving. Some part of this is because I like the show a lot more when the two of them are on the same side. But I also find reconciliation storylines to be cathartic in general.

--This marks another week without Tiana. Even though she's mentioned in passing between Hakeem and Camilla, she doesn't actually show up. I find the possibility that she wouldn't be at the huge event at the center of tonight's episode to be laughable at best and her continued absence is problematic. I think I'll give them one more week and then I'll start yelling for them to bring her back. It's a horrible waste of a fascinating character and a great storyline if they don't use her again. And with the extreme lack of fascinating female characters on TV (esp queer female characters) this would be unforgivable.

--Forgive me while I digress a little here, but the moment when it became clear that Glee wasn't going to be worth anyone's time anymore was when the show started to introduce interesting and important story developments only to then forget them the very next week. I bring this up because I feel like I'm starting to see a lot of that same tendency in Empire. Both shows come from Fox, both are musicals, and both are soapy to an extreme. But I think we have to continue to hope that Empire is capable of reaching far higher than Glee ever did. These comparisons might come more frequently in the future, but for now I think it's important to remember that Glee was equally as promising through its first 13 episodes as Empire has been through its first 7.

--From the Hot Mess Pile: Camilla continues to be hot mess fodder. It feels like she's falling prey to the show's inherent lack of consistency. This week, she's sick of just being Hakeem's secret side piece and wants more. Where did this come from? She didn't seem to have a problem with it before. Just go with it I guess.

--So I guess we're to assume that Jamal really is that girl's father? Does this add anything at all to the show, the character, or the story in general? I was initially excited for the manic injection of life I thought Raven-Seymone would bring to the series, but if we've lost her and are just keeping the kid, then I'm going to say that this is stupid and pointless.

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