Thursday, February 26, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 8: The Lyon's Roar

What came first, the Character or the Story? I know it seems like a very writerly riddle, but I do think it's a perfectly valid question. If I have the most amazing story ever told, does it matter if the characters within it are a little bland and two-dimensional? Conversely, if I have the most fascinating characters, can I get away with a story that's a little less interesting? I think the best stories strike a balance between those two forces; placing interesting characters in interesting situations and having them do interesting things as a result is always the best way to go. But in a show's first season, typically, I think we might be more likely to have to choose one or the other. I don't think this is anyone's fault; it's simply down to the logistics of storytelling. How well rounded and flushed out can a character be within an ensemble after only seven hours? So if the character work is improbable after such a (relatively) small amount of time, then the story should swoop in and pick up the slack, right? But if I were to ask you what the central story of any given Empire episode was, could you tell me?

I was bored at work not too long ago and I asked a few friends of mine to name Buffy episodes for me to watch. A couple people responded by telling me that they don't remember the names of individual episodes, so they couldn't really help me. To this I responded, "Simply tell me the story of the episode in question, and I'll tell you the title of the episode." I'm capable of doing this partially because I've watched through Buffy more times than I can count, but mostly because Buffy is a show in which almost every episode is centered around a specific and memorable storyline. This is where I'm starting to think that Empire is facing the biggest problem. Any given week with this show is less about a central storyline and more about a string of things that happen. This week, there's a party, Cookie and Lucious hook up again with Lucious promising to dump Anika, Jamal comes out, and Andre and Vernon work together to try and get Andre on the books as the Interim CEO in case Lucious is incapacitated at any given time, but those are plot points within a story, not a story in and of themselves. So what is this episode centrally about? What is any episode of this show about when you get right down to it?

It's not that Empire hasn't been facing these problems all along. In spite of my praise of the show, these cracks have always been there. It's just that the ride was so much fun before now that it simply didn't matter. "The Lyon's Roar" just isn't fun. Nor is it particularly enlightening outside of a couple small moments. Ultimately, what we're left with is an episode that doesn't really get its characters or its story right, and it's all left feeling messy.

On the character front, I think we need to talk about Andre. This is one of the few Andre focused episodes of this first season, and I think everything suffered because of it. Empire has big and important things to say about art and artists, but as such, it doesn't seem to know what to say about the only non-artistic Lyon in the group. Andre's initial position within the show seemed to be about mental illness, and living with bipolar disorder, but that seems to have taken a backseat as of late.  So all that's left for him is his status as a good business man. But is he even that in this episode? The idea to be the interim CEO comes from Vernon, not from Andre. That seems like a simple enough idea that someone with all the learning Andre's amassed should have been able to come up with much sooner. His next big calculation in an attempt to get the votes he needs to make this happen is to pimp his wife out to one of the board members. This seems like the kind of thing that can work, until the plan goes wrong, Rhonda sees who she's supposed to be seducing, and decides she doesn't want to play anymore. And the closest thing a backup plan that Andre has seems to be calling another board member and simply asking him for his vote, which works out just fine. So why were we put through that painful dinner scene in the first place?

It all boils down to Empire not really knowing who its characters are. And how could they when the characters seem to change at the drop of a hat. One week Andre is a seeming business genius, the next he can't even figure out a way to make sure he can get the votes needed to be named interim CEO to the company he's worked at all his adult life. One week the Lyons are all banding together in the face of the knowledge of Lucious' illness, the next week Lucious is laying bare the long list of problems he has with Andre's wife. The sad thing about this moment is that it's actually a great storyline for Empire to tackle, but it comes so fast out of nowhere that you're only left with a vague feeling of WTF instead of a serious idea of what it all means. Empire continues to be a show with a lot to say, but with very little understanding of the best way to go about saying it.

That is, on just about every topic except for Art and Jamal's sexuality. At this point, I'm left wondering why the entire series isn't just a string of scenes about Jamal being gay and arguing with Lucious and other characters about the importance of Art and Music. The entire sequence of Jamal's coming out is about as perfect as we've seen from the show. From he and Lucious' discussion about why they do what they do (for the music of course, which will live on long after both of them are dead), to the overwhelming support coming from everyone in the audience except Lucious when they hear how Jamal's given a queer edit to the song. The entire audience cheers, the camera lingers on every one of the major characters in attendance, all of them give nods and salutes of approval, and Lucious simply stands there stone faced. It's the culmination of what the show, and Cookie, have been saying all along, and Cookie isn't shy about saying it again: no one but Lucious cares about Jamal's sexual orientation. He came out, he's been a huge story on the 24 hour news cycle, and the world keeps spinning.

But when all is said and done, will "The Lyon's Roar" be remembered as Jamal's coming out episode? Is that the core story of the hour? It's true that the issue of Jamal coming out is brought up early in the hour in the scene between him and Hakeem at the church, and then culminates in the act itself, but I don't know that I feel like there's enough there for it to even be the B-plot of the episode. Especially in the face of the story being teased out over the course of all eight of these first episodes. It feels more like the culmination of a season long story than anything self-contained within this hour. This episode left me feeling like Empire's actual longevity might be in question. The meteoric rise in viewership over this first season will probably be more than enough to keep it on the air through two, maybe even three seasons, but ask yourself this: What will Empire look like upon rewatch, or more specifically on binge watch. When people sit down to either relive this first season, or to introduce their skeptical friends to it during the upcoming hiatus, will they be as impressed and excited as we were through those first five or six hours, or will they struggle to latch onto any of the flat characters or find any of the non-existent episode to episode storylines?

Random Thoughts:

--I'm also really just pissed off at the show's treatment of Tiana. Given the fact that we haven't seen her again since her own big coming out episode, it feels like everything about her only served to further Hakeem's storyline, and I'm sick of seeing interesting female characters sidelined or used as props in a male character's story.

--Unless I'm mistaken, this is the first episode that's both written and directed by Danny Strong. Danny's had some serious writing success lately, and as a Buffy Alum I wish him all of the best, but this was not a very good showcase for his talents. All of the characters basically just say what they're thinking, and there wasn't any kind of special flare to the directing that I could see. I think he should stick to writing, but I also think he can show himself as being a stronger writer than this episode presented him as.

--The White Party at the center of the episode must be a different White Party than the one I'm thinking of.

--I can't express enough how disappointed I am that this is the first we're hearing about Lucious' feelings towards Andre marrying a white woman. I think Andre's self-consciousness about his lack of musical ability has been an undercurrent to the show and the character all along, so that doesn't surprise me, but the thought that he married a white woman and went to school in order to be accepted within white culture is new. As well as Lucious' feelings towards same, and the idea that no matter how hard Andre works for that acceptance, it's not possible. There are so many threads that the show could tease out here, and yet it does a disservice to all of them by speeding through them in that one scene.

--Something else that felt rushed, or at least unearned by the show was Hakeem's statement that he's always felt like Cookie loved Jamal more than she loved him. On the one hand, I want to say that that's a fair and succinct way to bottle up all of Hakeem's anger and frustration towards her, but on the other hand I don't get it. Cookie was in prison for 17 years, all of Hakeem's life basically, but he says she always paid more attention to Jamal than to him. For all those years, was she sending Jamal birthday and Christmas gifts from the slammer and not sending any to Hakeem? She wasn't really in a place, I assume, from which she was capable of reaching out, so what specifically happened to make Hakeem feel that way? Also, why then is all of his anger over that placed on her and none of it towards Jamal? It makes more sense that that feeling of neglect would sour his and Jamal's relationship as well, and yet it doesn't seem to have done so.

--Point to fact, Jamal and Hakeem seem to be great at a number of points in this episode. The scene at the end with Hakeem telling his big brother just how proud he is of him and just how brave he is was the single best moment of the night. That relationship continues to pay dividends.

--What does Jamal having a daughter add to the character or the overall plot and story of the show? So far I continue to say nothing, but it's possible I'm just missing something. It all seems like a horrible waste to me though.

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