Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Empire: "Be True"

By now, it should be clear that Empire doesn't have a slower pace than the sprint we've seen them operating at since the first episode. But hours like "Be True" suggest that the show doesn't need to slow down so much as make sure that the storylines they're running through are consistently interesting. And perhaps when they aren't as interesting the fast pace works in the show's favor because they don't last too long. Either way, "Be True" is the best episode of Empire's sophomore season to date and it doesn't even have a standout line like the first episode's "You can't even dyke right!" I think some part of this is due to the importance of each character's storyline.

Jamal's in the studio with guest star Ne-Yo recording more great music and talking about touring together. Ne-Yo's another big get in the long line of big name guest stars the show's been able to pull in, but more than that he's a breath of fresh air for the show. He disagrees with almost everything Lucious says and isn't shy about standing up to him and speaking his mind, and more importantly he talks to Jamal like he's a person and a real artist, not like he's just some gay rich kid riding his dad's coattails. My friends and I have spent a lot of time lately talking about Nashville and their continued failings with the Will Lexington storyline. I've brought up the similarities between these storylines before, but it seems just as important now since Will just recently came out of the closet on that show. It's taken them three whole seasons to do what Jamal did in one, but more importantly since Will came out he's been dropped from his label, fallen into a bit of a depression, and hounded by members of the gay community for not doing enough to use his star status to push forward issues of visibility and equality. In short, he's been punished for being gay and the show doesn't seem to think there's anything wrong with that.

Conversely, Jamal works in Hip-Hop and R&B, an industry that's every bit as homophobic as the Country music industry. Yet in the wake of him coming out, he's been named the CEO of his father's company, had a hit album, is creating what should be another hit album, and has real life people from the industry telling him at every turn that his sexual orientation doesn't matter. There are scenes here where Ne-Yo talks to Jamal about the choice to bring Michael on the road with him like they're discussing something as simple as the weather. He compares Jamal's decision to his own experience of bringing girls on the road with him. Never once does he stop to sure up his position as a straight man or point out that there's any difference between him and Jamal. I know it's scripted, and who knows maybe in real life Ne-Yo feels differently on the subject (though I strongly doubt it), but that doesn't change the fact that it's important. At multiple times throughout the show's run, Empire has made it clear that it does not agree with Lucious' position on the subject of Jamal's sexuality. The more Nashville allows people to be horrible to Will without facing any kind of retribution for their actions or without bringing in powerful people to offer their unwavering support of him, the more I think that the show and it's writers are the ones that are homophobic. But that's a rather long tangent to go on for me to basically say that I really enjoyed Ne-Yo and his role in this episode and would greatly like it for him to come back at some point.

While Jamal battles with whether or not to take Michael on the road with him, Michael seems to be battling with his jealousy or whatever the fuck has been his problem towards Jamal. They spend more time with Adam Busch's character this episode and listen to him make common complaints about monogamy and same-sex marriage. They're arguments that shouldn't be new to anyone who's had an honest conversation with a gay person lately, but it's still interesting to hear them laid out on a popular primetime show. It culminates in him trying to blow Jamal in a hallway at Leviticus, being turned down, and then successfully blowing Michael out on Jamal's balcony. I've made no secret of the fact that I've hated Michael since his return this season, and in truth if this how we can finally be rid of him, I'm all for it. The problem with this storyline is I don't know that Michael's motivations for anything he does have been explained or sussed out well enough for him to be compelling or anything other than the full out villain in this situation. I'm guessing we'll finally get to hear his side of things later, but I also wouldn't be surprised if he's just unceremoniously gone from the show like he was last season.

While Jamal's stories in "Be True" are my favorite, it's Andre's decision to get baptized that hold the hour together. It leads to a nice scene between him and Rhonda where we're strongly led to believe that she isn't pregnant at all, something I've suspected since she first said she was. There's also a solid scene where he tells Lucious about his botched suicide attempt, but that doesn't really go as far as it should. And there's the best scene between the three brothers that we've seen since the elevator scene last year. Andre tells them that he set up Jamal's robbery, not Hakeem, and they both forgive him. It's a scene of strong performances all around, and I really really liked Hakeem's indignation over the fact that Jamal could have been hurt in all that instead of being mad that he'd been lied about. The Jamal--Hakeem relationship is still one of my favorite aspects of the show, and when they do little things like this to sure that up, it makes me hopeful about the show's future.

For his part, Andre seems genuine about wanting to do all he can to be a good big brother and to heal this family. Outside of the horrible influences of Cookie and Lucious, it's impossible not to root for him. The three of them together have a strong chemistry, and there seems to be a lot more unconditional love between them than there is between the kids and either of the parents. It all brings me back around to my main point that Empire the company would be much better served with the Lyons boys having equal control over it. If that's not the direction the series is heading in, it's all going to seem like a significant waste.

In 1100 words I still haven't mentioned Cookie's new promoter/bodyguard/love interest, the new threat to Lyon Dynasty, or Hakeem's continued struggle to set up his girl group and his obvious new love interest. And that's not because those stories are uninteresting, but simply because there's so much here. Empire at its worst crams a lot in to an episode and feels like it goes nowhere. But at it's best, it seems to crack through storylines at a breakneck speed without losing momentum or feeling like a waste. I don't think this kind of thing is at all possible to sustain for long periods of time, but Empire doesn't seem interested in marathons so much as wind sprints. It's an odd choice for a TV show (the ultimate in long form storytelling), but it's a choice that seems to be working more than not working for Empire, so I guess we should wish them well and just get out of their way.

Random Thoughts:

--Porsha's back! And thank God, because I love her. And the way she walks back in with a "I know you're busy, but can I have my job back?" kind of attitude is so indicative of who she is as character.

--There's another flashback to Lucious' time with his mom in this episode. This time to explain his seeming PTSD about Andre's being baptized. These scenes continue to be interesting to watch and continue giving us more about Lucious' past, so I don't want to come down too hard on them, but I do think they're starting to feel a bit one note. It all boils down to one thing: everything Lucious hates in the world is because his mom was bipolar. They're going to need to do more with these scenes or else find a new angle.

--Speaking of who Lucious is, it turns out he's an Atheist. This is actually something that I think the show could stand to explore more of. I'm interested in how a black Atheist would come to success in the black community. And I'm also interested in seeing more of the basis for his extreme homophobia. There's usually a correlation between high levels of religious fervor within a community and high levels of homophobia, but if Lucious lacks one, then why hold on to the other?

--I'm going to break character a bit and actually go to bat for Michael on one point. I refuse to believe that Michael, the active member of the gay community that he is, and constantly trying to get Jamal to get behind this or that great gay cause, doesn't know what the term "heteronormativity" means.

--Lucious: "This family is my business." In the ongoing conversation about what "family" might mean to this show, I guess we have to add Family as a business transaction to the list.

--The episode ends with Hakeem being kidnapped in broad daylight. This might be a little silly, but it's also a great way to go into a brief hiatus. The show will be back after the World Series is over, and when it is, we'll get what looks to be a tense and highly rewarding episode. I honestly can't wait!

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