Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Empire: "The Devils are Here"

And so starts the 2015 Fall TV schedule. Empire starts not with a bang so much as a gorilla suited Cookie roaring and thumping around in a cage, and anyone thinking the show might tamper some of it's campier moments down in its sophomore year were shown just how mistaken they were. This first episode alone features the caged gorilla, a large lesbian themed party, a severed head in a box, and guest stars such as Marisa Tomei, Chris Rock, and Al Sharpton. I guess there are benefits for breaking records left and right in your first season. But is the episode any good?

After a long hiatus I've realized that I honestly can't tell just how "good" I think Empire is any longer. It makes me laugh out loud multiple times an episode, but it also makes me roll my eyes a lot. It's headstrong enough to take on the injustice of the American justice system, but we all know it's also fickle enough to not follow through and have anything more to say than it did in this one episode. Even if I decide to engage with the show that Empire is instead of the show I want it to be, I'm still left wondering how well it tells its story and how effective anything it does is in the long run.

And so I end up watching the episodes with a kind of battle raging in my head. "The Devils are Here" opens with a concert being thrown by Empire to raise awareness about Lucious' three month long incarceration. It's good music, Empire artists, and a general fun time, and I enjoy it. And then Cookie and Lucious' brother, who I don't remember ever meeting before, use the platform to drop stats and talk openly about how unjust the American prison industrial complex is. At this point, I'm left to wonder whether or not the fact that Lucious is indeed guilty and therefore right where he should be undercuts the concert's, and by extension the show's, message about unfair incarcerations. But clearly that's thinking about things too much when the point is to be entertained by the music and curious about the hints of sapphic flirtation between Cookie and Marisa Tomei's Mimi.

Meanwhile back in what looks like one of the most minimal security prisons that anyone accused of murder has ever been interred in, everyone's abuzz with the news that Frank Gathers (Chris Rock playing strongly against type) is about to be joining them. Apparently her and Lucious and Cookie all go way back and we're told more than once that he's crazy. Cookie's cousin Jamel, last seen murdering the wrong person on Cookie's orders in a drive by, is worried about Frank's retribution and attempts to appeal to an uninterested Lucious for protection. It's protection he clearly needs as we find him later in the episode having been beaten up and, it's at least suggested, cannibalized by Frank. So I should add "bad guy who eats parts of people right in front of them while trying to get information" to the list of insane things in this episode.

But crazy doesn't mean bad. There's nothing really wrong with the prison scenes in this episode except that they take time and attention away from Empire's greatest strength: the Lyons family. Lucious is in there on his own, and while I don't hate Lucious as a character, I also don't think there's very much to him outside the confines of the rest of the family.

The real meat of the episode takes place back at Empire records. Cookie and everyone who isn't Jamal is busy trying to secure a lot of money from Mimi in order to complete their hostile takeover and remove Lucious as CEO of the company. This seems to require appealing to Mimi's homosexuality with a big girl on girl party and lots of flirting from Cookie and Anika. Anika even sleeps with her (which leads to one of the funniest lines of the night), but it's all to no avail. Mimi has an off screen meeting with Lucious and decides to throw her money and influence behind him and Jamal. In another show, I'd lament the fact that so many of these scenes take place off camera, but the truth is I think it was for the best here. In last season's finale, I mentioned how uninterested in the hostile takeover storyline I was. This is mostly because in that episode they seemed more interested in explaining the legal side of it like I was in business school. But here they put it all in basic and dramatic terms and it works. Andre, Cookie, Hakeem and Anita need a couple hundred million dollars for Mimi and they set out to get it. By the end of the episode, they seem to have it and move in to make their announcement only to find out they've been double crossed. No talk about percentages or major shares or the strategy behind corporate takeovers. They set a reasonable and understandable goal and they go after it and then they succeed and yet still fail. It's basic storytelling, and that's where the show needs to stay.

The important thing about all of this is always the family. Jamal and Hakeem, once so close, are clearly at each other's throats over Jamal being named the heir apparent. Cookie is claiming left and right that she's trying to unseat Lucious not to oust Jamal, but to bring the family together, and through those statements we see just how torn apart it all is. Also, the more Cookie says "I'm doing this for you" the more I see Walter White saying "I'm doing this for my family," and I can't help but to think if the two characters aren't more similar than I ever gave them credit for being before. But either way, the fact that so much of these developments, even Anika's sex session with Mimi, happen off camera allows us to stick with the Lyons family and see the fallout from their schemes and plots.

It all adds up to one of the better episodes of the show. It elevates what Empire is good at, while limiting its flaws. But it's also the first episode in a show that's seen its season order bumped up from 12 to 18. I'm walking into this season not expecting any real serialization, no really deep commentary on the important social issues they continue to bring up but only skate over the surface, and for the show to continue at a breakneck speed that will make your head spin. My expectations, however, are that since I know to expect those things, they won't be so shocking or annoying this season as they were last. Also, in the event that the show decides to surprise me and carry those elements a little better this year, it'll all be for the better. Here's hoping, but not really expecting.

Random thoughts:

--Jamal's story this episode, if not this whole season, seems to be about how much he's losing himself in the wake of trying to fill Lucious' shoes. He's more forceful than is at all warranted with his boyfriend, uninterested in throwing his face behind this LGBT cause, and hasn't been able to make time to get into the studio at all while his current album keeps falling from the top spot on the charts. On top of that, his interactions with Hakeem and Cookie are heartbreaking since his relationships with those two were the stronger parts of last season. I'd by lying if I said I wasn't both excited and curious to see where this all led.

--Speaking of Jamal's boyfriend, Michael's back. No word on why or how, or why they seem to have an exclusively Spanish speak butler, but there's that, I guess.

--The exceptionally fast pace that was both the boon and the bane of last season is back as Chris Rock's character is both introduced and killed off in this one episode. I can't tell if I'm more impressed by that or disappointed that they didn't get more out of powerhouse like Rock.

--Conversely, Marisa Tomei's character could stand to stick around. IMDB only has her listed as being on this one episode, but lord knows they've been wrong in the past. Fingers crossed that we get more of her in the weeks to come.

--There's one dream / memory sequence for Andre about what he and Rhonda did to Vernon, but that seems to be about where that storyline ends this week. I'm assuming it'll be one of the serialized elements of this season and I'm already not looking forward to it.

--I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the final scene between Cookie and Jamal! It's really fucking fantastic and Henson and Smollett absolutely kill it. The moment he breaks down after closing the door and the look on her face as he backs her out are just priceless.

--"You can't even dyke right!" has got to be one of the funniest lines in TV history.

--Likewise, every time Porsha is on screen is a treasure.

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