Thursday, March 19, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episodes 11 & 12

I think the last two episodes of Empire's first season are the most perfect encapsulation of what this season has been. I know that that might sound a bit like a compliment, but I don't think it's really intended to be. Because truth be told, the first hour in this two hour long extravaganza, "Die But Once," is brilliant for a number of different reasons, but the second hour, "Who I Am," is a train wreck. The Av Club Reviews of this season have often chided the show when it tackles issues surrounding the company or the music industry as a whole, but praised the show's work on the family and character level. In a nutshell, "Die But Once" is all about the characters and the Lyons family, and "Who I Am" in spite of its title is all about Empire Records and hostile corporate takeovers. As such, the writing is on the wall about which episode is the better of two. I also think that it's generally a better idea not to air two separate episodes back to back like this. I think there are a lot of good things to be said about a two-part episode being aired this way, or even two episodes of a show that's more tightly serialized than Empire is (look no further than the last day of How to Get Away With Murder episodes for an example of this). But what we had here were two very different episodes of the show that could have benefited from a week long break in between them.

But first things first, I'm going to try for a little optimism here and suggest something: What if the overall story of Empire's first season is a story about a hubristic man planning to bring his family together and unite them under his singular vision only to succeed in pushing them farther and farther apart? When you look at "Die But Once," that seems to be the suggestion. In the aftermath of Lucious' confession about his paternity of Lola, sending Camilla away, and leaving Andre alone with his illness, everyone (except Jamal, oddly) has just jumped clean off of the Lucious bandwagon. Cookie is off having a romantic weekend with Malcolm in the Berkshires, Hakeem is getting ready to sign with a different label and compose a freestyle that will be a blatant Fuck You to his father, and Andre is ready to turn in his resignation and give his life over to the Lord. Or to Jennifer Hudson, at least, and who can blame him on that front? And so it's in the penultimate episode that we finally see the fruits of all of Lucious' seeming labor. If when he sat his sons down in that first episode and purposed this little competition what he was hoping for was a moment when all of them would be standing shoulder to shoulder to bring Empire Records to the next step, then he was vastly mistaken.

But does that reading of the season track through all 12 episodes? His family didn't seem to be too torn apart at the beginning of that first episode. So what might he have been intending on bringing together? And at what point did we ever see Lucious doing anything that would ever benefit someone other than Lucious? So while I don't really accept that particular reading as gospel, it was the closet thing I could find to a seemingly full story that would have drawn to a close in these two episodes.

But that's to take nothing away from "Die But Once" itself which is a wonderfully engaging and entertaining episode for the show. Everything from Cookie and Malcolm's sexy fun times, to Becky's priceless sass, to Hakeem's revenge worked wonders. But the star of the hour had to be the latest in a season long run of Lucious and Jamal scenes; this one featuring the two of them banding together to make music. It's the honest culmination of their relationship. It's beautiful, moving, and powerful; the song they create is one of the better tracks the show produced all season, and it all can't help but to leave you feeling a bit warm and fuzzy inside.

If there's one downside to the scene, it's that it left me in a state of disbelief that Lucious could possibly have gone all this time without fully realizing just how talented Jamal is. I think the jealousy arc they set up back towards the beginning of the show (and never really touched on again) might account for some of that, but Jamal's been killing it on a level that Hakeem hasn't, and I'm simply not capable of believing that it would have taken this much time for Lucious, musical genius that he allegedly is, to see it. Here in lies the problem with Lucious' cartoonish level of homophobia. If you want me to believe that Lucious might try to deny that Jamal is his son, I'm willing to go with that, but if you want me to believe that because of Jamal's sexuality, Lucious would have spent years and years of his life ignoring his obvious talent, I can't really wrap my brain around that.

It's a powerfully moving scene when watched on its own, but it can take on a more sinister light when pitted against the scene where Lucious tells Jamal to get the rights to his old music by any means necessary. The scene where the two of them are making music is inter-cut with scenes of a murder Lucious committed. And then we see Jamal ready to throw Beretti from the roof in order to get what he wants. The suggestion is that in order for Lucious to fully accept Jamal, Jamal's got to become more like him. It also makes you wonder if Lucious' motivations for going off with Jamal and singing with him weren't this dark all along.

All of this brings us to the point where Lucious names Jamal the next leader of Empire records. These two episodes are written by Ilene Chaiken and Danny Strong, but both of them clarify just how much of Empire was always meant to be an exercise in Lee Daniels' own wish fulfillment. Daniels has been open about his own relationship with his father, and it's easy to see the parallels between his and Jamal's story. So I can't help but to think that Jamal getting the company and finally gaining Lucious' love and acceptance is meant to be something cathartic for Daniels. Whether or not it all rings true is is something I think everyone has to answer for themselves. I don't buy it, personally. I think especially in the wake of the news that he doesn't have ALS after all and won't necessarily be dying anytime soon, I think it's more likely that Lucious would put off making his decision for one more season just to give Hakeem more time to come around and find himself in a position to take over.

But Lucious naming Jamal as his successor is the decision that kicks off "Who I Am" and that leads to some of the most nonsensical moments of that finale. I mentioned before that these two episodes didn't have to be paired together on one night, but some part of me wonders whether or not Fox looked at them individually, saw how ridiculous this last one was, and then paired them together in the hopes that the first episode would carry enough positive momentum to propel viewers through the second and into hiatus without much complaint.

Lucious' decision has been made, the silly competition for who will run the company is over, and instead of allowing the brothers to heal and move past it, it simply incites a new revelry between them. Andre and Hakeem band together to unseat Jamal, and for some reason that isn't at all made clear and that I wouldn't buy anyway, Cookie joins them. Jamal and Cookie's relationship has been nothing but strong for this entire season, and yet in the course of one episode Jamal is pissed at Cookie for even entertaining the notion of killing Lucious, and Cookie seems to no longer think that Jamal should run Empire but that he should have immediately split it with Hakeem as soon as Lucious offered it to him.

Don't get me wrong, that's what I want too. I've been saying for weeks now that the perfect outcome for all of this would be the three bothers running company together. But the ease with which Cookie seems to jump from team Jamal to team Hakeem is ridiculous and it makes me think that she's less interested in her sons succeeding than she is in hitching her wagon up to whichever star will have the most benefit for herself. It's the first time I honestly stopped to wonder if Cookie was actually any better than Lucious at all. I'm also not saying that Jamal needn't be a bit disappointed in his mother for her homicidal intent, but the extent to which he looks shocked and disgusted was surprising to me. I think more of a "Well that's fucked up, Ma, but yeah I get it, he is a total dick after all," would have been more believable. But the look of betrayal on Jamal's face when Lucious showed him the tape of Cookie with the pillow was just a bit much to me.

"Who I Am" suffers, as all the worst episodes of this season did, from Empire's inability to slow the fuck down. It's a breakneck episode rushing through setting up the Empire Records line of succession, the hostile takeover, and Lucious' arrest for Bunkie's murder (yes the same Bunkie that none of us have really even thought about in many many weeks). In its rush to setup some of the foundation for next season, Empire forgot that they needed to produce a strong caper to this season.

The majority of what happens within it is ridiculousness without the excitement of typically good Empire ridiculousness. Vernon dies because little old Rhonda hits him with what looks like a small candle holder in order to get him off of Andre? Give me a break! I neither believe that she's strong enough or that that weapon was hefty enough to do that much damage. It's a scene that reeks of forced drama intended to set the stage for their major crisis next season, but it doesn't feel real or earned by any means.

The scenes where Lucious gets arrested and where Cookie and Anika finally get into the fight we've all been waiting for are far better earned by the show simply because they've been setup from the very first episode. Granted the show forgot all about Bunkie's existence until this week, but it was still a storyline we all knew would have to be addressed sooner or later. The only problem with both of those scenes is that neither of them have any sort of long standing consequences to the show as a whole. Cookie and Anika are agreeing to work together immediately after throwing blows, and we all know Lucious won't be in jail long. So why get invested?

 It's a bit weird that a show so perfectly encapsulates everything it's been all season in two episodes, but there you have it. It was shocking, juciey and entertaining in parts, and boring, convoluted, and nonsense in other parts. But seeing as how this inconsistency is exactly what we'd been given for the 10 episodes prior to these two, should we really have been surprised?

Random Thoughts:

--I mentioned it once but didn't go into details, but Lucious isn't dying after all. Instead of ALS he has Myasthenia Gravis which is actually a real thing. I expected there to be some kind of cop out with his march towards death, but I was hoping it would come in the form of some kind of miraculous new treatment, or some change in circumstances that just caused his symptoms to slow down or something. His not having ALS at all annoys me and I'm not totally sure why.

--Snoop Dogg was great in "Die But Once," and Hakeem's freestyle was a lot more skillful than I expected. It wasn't perfect, but given Hakeem's silver spoon issue and the thought that he would have ultimately bypassed that underground kind of rap battling left me unsure as to how good he could be expected to be.

--Mario Van Peebles and Debbie Allen directed these two episodes. I didn't notice anything remarkable about the direction of either, but I'll have to watch them through a second time to make sure. Either way, Empire's ability to draw in big names both behind and in front of the camera has to continue to be commended. Especially since Snoop Dogg and Patti LaBelle also found themselves in these episodes.

--I'm very sad to see Malcolm go right when he and Cookie were getting started. We'll miss you, Derek Luke. And your great abs too!

--Speaking of which, I think the sex scene between Malcolm and Cookie was award worthy!

--Also great was the Cookie and Anika fight. Partially because it was a long time coming and everything we hoped it would be, but also partially because of how surprised I was that Anika honestly held her own in it. I didn't expect it to be such a close bout.

--The speed with which Jamal seems to start serving his own interest over those of his brothers when he's named the successor is ridiculous and unbelievable. The suggestion seems to be that he's had this darker, more Lucious-like, seed within him all along, but I don't buy that for one second. They could have done much better.

--Going forward, I would love to see Empire finally start to slow down and take its time with more of its storylines, plan its seasons out in advance instead of just playing it episode by episode, and get to the point where its capable of making the business storylines just as entertaining as the family drama. I can't think of anything I'm less interested in than this hostile takeover story.

--Thanks for sticking it out with them through this first season. Hopefully I'll be able to do this again next year with the show's second season.

Monday, March 16, 2015

TV Review: Secrets and Lies: Episodes 1-4

I've developed a new addiction in the last couple weeks. This one to ABC's new drama Secrets and Lies. It's yet another American import of an overseas original. I haven't seen the Australian version of the show, and I can't help but to assume that that's a good thing. Not knowing what similarities or differences can be found between the two series has got to be a part of the reason I've enjoyed the show's first 4 hours. After all, it was the specter of the great Broadchurch which stopped me from being able to watch more than the first 15 minutes of Gracepoint. And here we have another import show based around a young boy's murder, so I can't help but to think that the best way to tackle this series is to go in blind. Having done so, I can say that this is yet another flawed, but supremely enjoyable TV series.

Secrets and Lies starts off with Ben Crawford (Ryan Phillippe) stumbling across the body of his young neighbor Tom Murphy. Distraught over the fact that he just found a young boy's body in the woods, and also by the fact that this was a child he was particularly close to, Ben rushes to call the cops and try to put the wheels in motion to find Tom's killer. Enter Detective Andrea Cornell (Juliette Lewis). Her job, of course, is to find out who killed Tom, but for all intents and purposes she's decided that the answer to that question is Ben Crawford, and all of her work over the course of the first four episodes has been about trying to prove that. What follows is a series of events in which Ben works to clear his name and make sure the finger of blame is pointing everywhere but at him, and Detective Cornell does some of the worst detective work imaginable as she tries to get enough evidence against Ben to make a conviction stick. And, of course, the news that a young boy from their neighborhood is dead and that their father and husband is suspected of the crime tears the Crawford family apart.

What sets Secrets and Lies apart from other whodunit mysteries is that it's not really about solving the mystery. The steps Ben and Cornell are taking to clear his name and convict it respectively are just pathways through which the real story flows. The important thing about this show is right there in the title (subtlety is not their strong suit). This crime and the subsequent investigation serve to out the Crawfords and their neighbors' many different secrets and expose their many deceptions. The family and town drama aspects are the better and stronger aspects of the show; on another series the reverse would be true. Just today I was talking to a friend about this series and she said she doesn't even care who killed Tom, she's just tuning in each week to see what new salacious tidbit will be revealed. And I couldn't agree more because the truth is that no resolution to this story is capable of being as fun or interesting as the things we've seen thus far and still stand to see in the future. The strength of Secrets and Lies is in the journey not the destination.

But for as good as the family drama and the episodic twists and turns are, the basic framework of the show is really shoddy. When they aren't dropping atomic truth bombs, they're fighting against a number of elements that continually pull me out of their storytelling. For starters, no one on the show seems to honestly believe that Ben is innocent. The people firmly in his corner are thus far limited to his youngest daughter Abby (Belle Shouse), and his best friend Dave (Dan Fogler). Dave is a deadbeat who spends the first four episodes living in a kind of mother-in-law-suite in Ben's backyard, so maybe take his support with a grain of salt. Tom's mother, Jess (Natalie Martinez), is also on team Ben, but whether that's because she honestly believes Ben wouldn't be capable of that, or because she still harbors feelings for him after the fling they had which produced Tom (not so incidentally) is a matter that's still up for debate.

But everyone else from the detective to his other neighbors to his wife and his oldest daughter all seem to think he did it. Or, at least in the case of his wife and oldest daughter, they don't seem to be sure one way or another. This surprises me most in the case of the wife and the neighbors. It's not that you wouldn't be sure of Ben's innocence were you close to him, but to think that he was at all capable of this act seems to be a base betrayal. We see Ben interact with people and it presents us with a picture of a man who's got along great with his neighbors for years now. All of a sudden they all think he's a child killer who should burn in hell? That's a big leap to take over night. And as for his wife,  Christy (KaDee Strickland), if she's ready to believe it's at all possible that her husband is a murderer, then why is she still with him at all?

The biggest place where the show seems to be straining credability is in the mystery and the murder investigation aspects. Ben is doing a lot of his own detective work to try and clear his name, and he's oddly kind of good at it. He at least finds Jess' abusive military husband who's on the run from the MP's and kind of from the cops too, and yet is found by Ben after an episode of looking. Ben Crawford is a painter, so where'd he get all these detective skills? Or is it that police work is so easy that anyone could do it? Because if that's the case, then why is Cornell so incapable? I don't think that the show is actually making the point that she is incapable so much as unwilling to look anywhere other than at Ben, but the extent to which she lacks any kind of counterbalancing is odd. No one else in the police department thinks she might be better served using the smallest amount of the effort she's putting into proving her suspicions to maybe look at other options?

Other than that, the show has a few logistical concerns to work out, some bad acting (or at least I think it's bad acting, it could just be poor character development) to overcome, and my overall biggest concern for it: how do you sustain this story over the course of multiple seasons? As I said before, I don't think that the question of who killed Tom Murphy is the central aspect of the show, but it is the skeleton holding all of these pieces together. And if it takes longer than a season to find out who killed Tom, or more importantly to prove once and for all that Ben didn't, then I think we're just in shoddy storytelling territory. But on the other hand, if that particular mystery is solved by the time this season is up, then what? Without the stress of the investigation, without the continued interactions between Ben and Cornell, then what is the show about? Do we stop revealing people's secrets and just start dealing full time with the fallout from those secrets? And even before that inevitability comes along, how long can the show continue to milk this shocking surprise for shock's sake methodology? Everyone has secrets and everyone lies, but for now those secrets are at least novel enough to keep us watching. Eventually they might either stop being surprising or have to get bigger and sillier and juicier just to keep our interest, and that'll put the show in shark jumping territory sooner rather than later. But for now, I don't think anyone is concerning themselves with those kinds of questions. The fact of the matter is the one thing this show does with great skill is reveal big sloppy secrets that can make jaws drop and people gasp with shock and anticipation. If that's their strong suit as well as the focal point of the series, then I'll continue to look forward to how they manage that each week.

Random Thoughts:

--About the bad acting thing, is it just me or is Juliette Lewis just the worst in this? I can't tell if her one expression, cardboard robot routine is the result of bad acting or something deeper going on with her character, but I think we need answers quick. If her character is somewhere on the autism spectrum, then I'd like to know for sure and I'll engage with her differently, but if she's not, then I'd like for her to develop a bit of range and more emotions.

--I hate to put this on a child but there's some odd choices being made with Ben's youngest daughter too. I don't want to think that Belle Shouse is a bad actress, but I also can't tell. I think the problem is probably more of the script's fault. She seems to be written a lot younger than that actress appears to be. A lot of her lines and affectations at least feel like they'd be better on a 7 or 8 year old, and while I don't know how old Shouse is in real life, my guess is around 11.

--Back on the subject of Jess' abusive military husband: I find him to be laughably unbelievable as a villain. He's a super military guy with specialized training who breaks into Ben's house in the night in order to stand over and him and make stupid threats. I'm not saying people like him don't exist, I'm just saying I have a hard time taking him seriously.

--One aspect of the story that I didn't talk about is the core spiral of Ben's mental state as he deals with these accusations. He no longer knows who he can trust, his family is kind of imploding, his teenage daughter is being as teenagery as you can get, and his paranoia is causing him to lash out at those closest to him and do stupid things. It all makes perfect sense and it's ridiculously fun to watch. To the extent that this is a story about how hard and impossible it is to keep it all together in the face of being accused of a murder you (probably) didn't commit, it's really quite brilliant. In fact, after the last two episodes, I'd say that that story is even better than the who's hiding what aspect of the show.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 10: Sins of the Father

There's a common theme that creeps up in a number of stories and shows and countless other places: It doesn't matter where you start, it only matters what you become. I think it's a quintessentially American point of view. In a country that's founded on, or at least that has greatly embraced the principals that anyone can transcend their parents' station and just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and become anything they want to be, the idea that someone can start as a pauper and end as a prince is not only fanciful but believable. It's a story that I enjoy, but as a method of storytelling, it's something I find suspect. This is because in a perfect world the story would track at a consistent quality and pace throughout. But the world isn't perfect, and sometimes stories stumble out of the gate only to pick up steam in the middle and then rocket home at the end. And sometimes there are stories like the one about Jamal's alleged daughter. It was a horribly problematic beginning, a pointless and mostly absent middle, and then an explosive and surprisingly moving end. So I ask, if two thirds of the story were problems, but the last third totally sticks the landing, does it really matter? And what does this mean for the series as a whole? Empire started out strong, waned a bit in the middle, and now seems to be heading towards an entertaining if disconnected season finale. So what does that mean for the show as a whole through its first season?

I'm not sure about the answers to these questions. Chances are they're all purely subjective, but this episode was so enjoyable that I can't help but to ask them. It's not that I think this is the first episode that's been legitimately good in awhile. It's just that this is the first episode where the good soapy silliness was so good as to make the unbelievable ridiculous moments moot by comparison. Malcolm is declaring his deep love for Cookie after sharing only like three scenes with her and just last week explaining why she's off limits to him? Who cares, I ship it anyway so let's just get on with the sexy fun times. Olivia's back with her abusive boyfriend who's basically come back in order to get her and her daughter back so he can kill them? Who cares so long as we get the bombshell that Lola is actually Lucious' daughter and not Jamal's! The last few episodes of the show have had some fun moments, a few zingers, but no revelations on par with this. Jamal's coming out isn't as big a moment since we've known he was gay all along. Even Andre's psychotic break isn't all that surprising as you could have guessed it was coming since the moment the word bipolar was spoken. But this? You may have guessed that Lola wasn't Jamal's. You may even have speculated that she was Lucious'. But there's no way to guess at the effect that that news would have when divulged in this manner.

And that's the real treat of the episode. The news that Lucious is the father is actually secondary to the fact that he would tell everyone not in a moment of self-aggrandizement, not in an effort to hurt Jamal, but at a moment when he thinks that that information might actually save everyone's lives. Is it a purely selfless act? I'm not so sure I'd go that far, but it's certainly as close as I think Lucious Lyon is capable of getting. And it's this element that impresses and intrigues me the most. Not even half an hour after telling Jamal that Lola doesn't need to be raised "In that lifestyle" (we'll come back to this issue later), he's willing to throw himself in front of a bullet in order to save Jamal's life. If there's one place Empire has been consistent throughout these ten episodes, it's in the complications in the Lucious/Jamal relationship. Lucious seems to hate him, and yet he'd take a bullet for him. Jamal undermines Lucious at every turn, and yet he's ready to sing on the family song after hearing that Lucious is dying. Their relationship goes so much deeper than just gay son and bigoted dad, and that will forever be to the show's credit. I've complained about the uselessness of Lola's presence multiple times since she was introduced four episodes ago, and I stand by those complaints wholeheartedly, but if this is where the show was heading all along, I'll scale back my criticism.

Another story seems to end this week but this one simply fizzles out instead of getting the bang that Lola and Olivia get. Camilla is gone. Hopefully for good, but ultimately who knows. She spends a lot of time this week trying to makeover Hakeem, give him a new sound, and using the word "we" when she's talking about his career, but by the end of the episode Lucious has shipped her back to her homeland not to return until he's dead. On the one hand, I'm happy to see her go, on the other hand what did we actually learn about her, or through her about Hakeem, while she was with us? In my notes while watching the episode, I question who she was, what was her motivation, and what was she getting out of this entire relationship? We can do a lot of the shading in of this character ourselves, and perhaps that's the show's ultimate goal, but I would like to at least feel like the show has the answers to these questions instead of putting it all on the viewer, and I'm not sure I left this episode feeling as though that was the case. It would have been an interesting development had she actually taken the money and we saw that she'd been just using Hakeem all this time to get out of her considerable debt. But she didn't, so it seems as though she wasn't, and if not that then what? Love? Camilla truly loving Hakeem is a possibility that would make sense, but I'm not sure how interesting I'd find it in the grand scheme of things. Either way, what a waste of Naomi Campbell that turned out to be.

There are also two small moments in this episode that reek of the show wanting to make mention of a big issue only to then skate over it and not engage with it fully. The first comes at the beginning of the hour when Cookie makes a passing mention of how bipolar disorder and music therapy are just silly white people nonsense. Here's a moment when the show could fully engage with the problematic manner in which the black community tends to view mental illness and how that often leads to people of color not getting the help they need to make it through such troubled waters. But instead the show treats it as a funny Cookie throwaway one liner and moves on. Even later in the episode when Jamal calls Lucious on the way he ignores issues about his kids that don't fit in with his perfect little world view, it's treated more as just another instance of Lucious' bigotry than the deeper racial problem that it is.

The other moment is in Lucious' conversation with Vernon. He mentions how he would expect the power grab move from Andre since Andre is book smart, but he never would have expected it from Vernon who's street smart and therefore should have known better. The difference between the two and the manner in which Lucious clearly values the latter over the former could be important. It's a subject the show has touched on a couple times now. But yet again it's just a quick one off mention meant to spur Vernon's drug fueled pity party and make him the catalyst for the episode's big climax.

Next week is Empire's big two hour season finale. Based on the preview, I can't say that I'm not ridiculously excited to see what the big soapy drama that will have everyone talking on Thursday will be. But what I'm more interested in is whether or not they can stick the landing. Empire started strong, got bumpy in the middle, and now has the ability to finish strong as well. If it does that, they'll have bookended the first season well, and I think most people will easily forgive the questionable middle passages. But if it simply fizzles out like the Camilla storyline did, then a few people might find themselves questioning why they spent those thirteen hours going along for the ride in the first place.

Random Thoughts:

--I mentioned early on in these reviews that one of the good things about this show could end up being the way it was capable of zigging when you expected it to zag. One place where I would have liked to see that happen is in Lucious' conversation with Jamal about why Lola shouldn't live with him. It'd have been funny if Jamal was assuming he meant he didn't want Lola raised by a gay guy when what he actually meant was he didn't want her to be raised by a poor person in the hood. Still problematic, but since I've recently become exhausted with each new iteration of Lucious' extreme homophobia, it would have been a breath of fresh air.

--I understand the easy interpretation of Lucious coming clean had more to do with him stepping in to save Cookie than it did him stepping in to save Jamal, but I like my reading better.

--When we got around to the reappearance of Olivia, I found myself thinking that she didn't seem to have any of the same manic fire that she did when she was dropping Lola off in the first place. One thing this ending did was give me the ability to re-conceptualize that earlier scene. If her manic presentation was more about a woman stressing out over coming to the conclusion that her only option to save her daughter was to give her away, then I think it makes a bit more sense. It'll be interesting to rewatch those scenes with this outcome in mind.

--With that being said, however, I would have liked to see a bit more emotional distress from Raven-Seymone in the scene where she's about to leave the state. If you're upset you had to leave your baby with Jamal in the first place, maybe you can also be upset that you're about to flee the state and officially never see her again at all.

--Nice work from Jennifer Hudson in her first guest starring episode. The scene where she asks Andre to pray with her when it looks like she's about to seduce him was another nice moment of the show subverting viewer expectations. Although the "Pray your troubles away" approach might fall in the black people not getting the mental help they need category.

--The flashback hair in this episode was just atrocious.

--Ryan left Jamal when Jamal decided he wanted to be a full time father to Lola. It's a development that I honestly don't care about one way or another as I'm not really attached to Ryan and because I'm not at all attached to the idea that Jamal had actually grown enough as a character to make that decision on his part make any kind of sense. But I did like the way they were capable of having a grownup discussion about it in which neither of them had to come off as the bad guy. It places them a step up above Jamal and Michael as much as it pains me to say it.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

TV Review: Empire Episode 9: Unto the Breach

I think this week saw one of the better episodes of Empire that we've seen in awhile, but I also think that the heydays of the show's first block of episodes is officially dead and gone. That's not to say that the show isn't entertaining any longer, because nothing could be farther from the truth on that one. But the revelatory nature of the show's early movements are gone. Gone are the days when I thought we were in for some grand sweeping pronouncements and deep storylines dealing intelligently with topics that we just didn't see being touched on as often in TV. I'm mourning for those (seeming) losses, but still nowhere near close to wanting to give up on this show. Because at the end of the day, even considering the ridiculous lows this show is capable of hitting, it never ceases to be fun to watch.

One of the places the show teeters on the line between important storytelling, and silly soapy nonsense is in the Andre storyline this week. Allow me to start with a disclaimer: I do not have, nor have I lived with or spent an abundance of time with anyone who does have bipolar disorder, at least not to the extent that Andre seems to. All of my limited experience on the subject comes from storylines on other shows and years of watching ER. With that being said, I don't buy the progression of Andre's illness and symptoms this week. I'm not saying that it's impossible; again I have no extensive knowledge of this kind of thing. I'm simply saying that I don't buy it. I don't believe that someone could stop taking their meds and in the course of less than 24 hours proceed from a relatively stable state into a complete manic state such as we see Andre in before the episode's midway point. It's another situation where the show needs to (say it with me now) slow down.

Had Andre gone off of his meds in the last episode, and slowly spiraled into his manic state, this wouldn't be a concern. Or if the episode had taken place over the course of a couple days instead of the one day it's clearly established to have taken place in, this wouldn't be a concern. But when I spend more of my time saying "It doesn't make sense for him to have hit this low this quickly," then my attention is taken away from what he's doing and how the other characters are reacting to same. Which brings us to one of the more pivotal moments in the episode: the elevator scene. I think this scene would be important even without being underscored by Andre's mania since its really the first scene between the three brothers without the divisive influence of their wives or parents. But I couldn't help but to imagine just how much better the entire thing would have played out with more build up to it. What if Andre went off his meds an episode or more ago and we watched a progressive spiraling of his mental state over time? And what if two or three episodes back we were treated to a flashback scene of the boys living in that bad neighborhood and gunshots are heard and Andre is the one that rushes to get Jamal and Hakeem, both of whom are crying, and get them both down on the ground in case more gunshots ring out. And while they're all down there crying and afraid, Andre starts to sing Lean on Me, and Jamal quiets down with tear streaks all down his face, and baby Hakeem even stops squalling to listen. And then you jump to this episode where Andre, hitting the rock bottom of his days long cycle, freaks out while trapped in the elevator and in the midst of his yelling and panicking, all we hear is Jamal and Hakeem starting to sing and beat box Lean on Me, and it calms and quiets their older brother down. The benefits of those changes, of that little bit of per-planing on behalf of the show would have worked wonders. You're welcome, Empire, I fixed the scene.

Not that the scene, as is, is fully broken, per se. The truth is that I watched that scene and felt the intended emotion from it. It didn't bring tears to my eyes or anything (though I think had it happened the way I prescribed above, then it would have), but I certainly understood where they were going with it all and I was able to meet them halfway. All I'm saying is that those little things that the show still isn't doing to the best of its ability takes a scene that could be great and meaningful and important and leaves them just good. Maybe to a certain extent this is just me trying to enforce my own view of what the show could and should be onto it. Maybe Empire has no interest in being great or important on that level. But if that's the case, then I think there's a serious problem with some of what they've leveled against their characters. If you don't have something meaningful to say about living with bipolar disorder, then making one of your main characters bipolar starts to feel like a gimmick. It feels exploitative and reductive to people living with it if the only reason you made Andre bipolar is so that you could have scenes of heightened drama and explosiveness. There's more to a person with mental illness than that, but I'm not sure that there's more to Andre than that. In the end, I feel as though none of the writers have ever dealt with mental illness, and as such, Andre feels like a token. I may be wrong around that, but if I am and if this is something the writers have first hand knowledge of, then they need to do a better job making it feel real and accessible to the rest of us.

The rest of the episode is pretty standard Empire fare. Lucious' bigotry is kicked up a few notches in the wake of Jamal's coming out. It was expected, but I thought the show missed an opportunity here. If Lucious' anger had been based more on Jamal's ability to take one of his old songs and update it, personalize it, and make it into something that was even more successful than before, then I think that would have been a more interesting development than the basic "I'm not going to respect any of the good you do just because you're gay" angle. Cookie's in rare form as she plays a drinking game with a group of men in order to ensure one of Empire's artist doesn't jump ship. She gets in a few great lines with Derek Luke's character, and then is magically sober again a couple hours later and ready to go for a meeting to bring Tiana back into the fold.

Speaking of which, it would appear that my prayers have been answered on the Tiana front, by which I mean that she came back around for another episode. I think the way she's handled in this episode is the equivalent of praying for food and someone handing you a poisoned apple. She's staying with Empire, but there's no real evidence that we'll be seeing more of her in the future, there's no mention of her sexuality (in an episode where Jamal's sexuality is a topic on just about everyone's lips no less), and for some reason that I don't even think the writers understand she wants to get back with Hakeem. Where was it established that she and Hakeem were meant to be some kind of deep forever love? I was under the impression that for Tiana at least their's was always more of a show relationship than anything deeper. Or is that still the case and all she wants is to be back with him for the boost it'll offer her career? Not knowing the answer to this question doesn't bother me nearly as much as my feeling that the writers don't know either.

But for all of this complaining (and really it's a lot more complaining than I originally intended there to be), the episode was fun, funny, and entertaining. The soapy moments are ridiculous, no one believes for a second that Lucious' and Baretti's men would be found in a Mexican standoff in the middle of the streets in broad daylight, but that doesn't make it any less fun to watch. And one place where the show's breakneck speed continues to work for them can be found in the first scene where Cookie outs Anika's backstabbing to Lucious. In another show, this would have hung over the characters heads for a lot longer, but here one episode ends with Anika going to Baretti's office and the next episode begins with Lucious being told about it. It's something I'll continue to respect the show for, I just wished they knew how to balance it. After all, anyone who drives with their foot constantly on the accelerator is eventually going to end up wrapped around a lamp pole somewhere.

Random Thoughts:

--If you want to see what I think of as a bipolar storyline done well, look to Showtime's Shameless. The way that show has been handling Ian for the past two seasons, and the things they were capable of showing with Monica in the first few seasons have just been stellar. The rest of the show is crap, but it continues to get the Ian storyline right on multiple levels.

--Another slight problem I have with the show is that we're only 3 episodes away from the season finale and it still doesn't really feel like we're building towards anything. I'm worried that when everyone looks back at the overarching story of the first season, we'll all be disappointed to find that there really wasn't one.

--Lucious as much as admits that he's tapped Hakeem as the person he wants running Empire when he's gone. This is what I suspected from the beginning as being the only reason the competition was introduced back in the pilot. Andre's got the most business sense and has worked there for years, so he makes the most sense, but it was clear from the start that Lucious wanted Hakeem. Which makes so much of the foundation of the show seem a little faulty in a couple ways.

--But along those lines, if there's one thing I'll continue to say for sure about this story, it's that all three of the brothers running the business together continues to be the outcome that just makes the most sense. The elevator scene confirmed this for me.