Thursday, November 5, 2015

Empire: "A High Hope For a Low Heaven"

From my last Empire review: "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!" Well I waited with everyone else, and I have to say I'm sorry I ever let my expectations get anywhere near that high because this was a shit show of an episode. On the one hand, I want to blame the small hiatus for this episode's massive failure, but the truth is the storylines here simply aren't executed well at all. It's yet another case of Empire's breakneck pacing coming around to bite it and us in the ass.

That's not to say there isn't good to be found here. The opening moments picking up where the last episode left off are rightfully tense, and in true Empire fashion they aren't without a level of humor. This episode tells us that Becky's dating, or at least sleeping with, one of the rappers on the Gutter Life label, and he's sexy as hell, so good for her. And the story about Jamal looking to take over his own marketing and branding instead of allowing Empire to brand him as a gay artist is both valid and interesting. Though to be fair  it's also baseless as we haven't seen Empire's efforts to brand or market Jamal at all, and I strongly doubt that the Staples Center would turn him down for a show there because he's gay, or for the "you're too current" reason they give him. So that's all ridiculous and speaks towards a different problem I'll try to touch on later. But the idea of Jamal wanting to steer his career in a particular direction is interesting enough.

There's also a moment at the end of the episode when Lucious is talking to Freda about he feels closer to her than he does his own sons that could work if the show gives it it's due. I think I mentioned last season that some part of what Empire could stand to do is talk more about how Hakeem and Jamal don't get to claim any level of street-cred since they both grow up in a time after Lucious has already made it out of the ghetto. So what would be the core of Hakeem's fanbase is always going to be a bit alienated from him because they can't relate and if he tries to rap about something real to them, it'll come off as fake. Enter Freda who does live that life and who has the ability to be the kind of protege that Lucious can see himself in and that his kids honestly couldn't ever be. It makes sense that he'd feel a connection to her as an artist that he doesn't feel to his boys. In order to make that reading work properly, you have to forget his promise her father that he was going to have sex with her, but willful ignorance should be second nature to all Empire fans by now.

To cap off the good from this episode is the scene of the brother's banding together once more to help pull Hakeem back from his PTSD fueled edge. It carries every bit as much weight, and probably even more, as the elevator scene from last season. That's because 1) Hakeem's downward spiral is one we've watched happening over the course of the episode, making this scene feel more organic and inevitable, and 2) the Lyons brothers continue to be the strongest aspect of the show. At one point, the boys point out to Hakeem that he's stronger than most because he made it out of being Cookie and Lucious' son and he's still alive. That's a feat to be reckoned with, and I can't help but to agree with that outlook. Very often, I wonder what this show might look like if the battle lines were drawn with all of the Lyons kids on one side and Cookie and Lucious on the other. You'd have to do away with some of Cookie and Lucious' sniping at each other, which has of course been a fun cornerstone of the show since the beginning, but that makeup would at least give us one team to root for, which is what the show is drastically missing at the moment.

Sadly, that's where the good ends for this hour. The biggest offender in this episode is the Hakeem storyline. This should be the thing that makes this episode great, and for a moment it feels like it will. But then Lucious pays the ransom, a ransom asked for and acquired off screen I might add, and the kidnappers let Hakeem go. Simple as that. No one's delusional enough to think that Hakeem will actually die in this episode, so the stakes were always going to be relatively low, but had they at least allowed the story to transpire over the course of the whole episode, they could have built a little suspense and given the characters enough time to realistically deal with their feelings about the youngest Lyon being taken. As is, he's taken, released, falls into PTSD, and then is pulled out of it and returned to some kind of status quo in the course of one episode.

Allow me to digress for a minute here and talk about another primetime soap show. Last season on Scandal, Olivia Pope was kidnapped in order to put pressure on the president to go to war in order to get her back. It was silly and soapy as these things tend to be, and since there's honestly no show without Olivia, the stakes weren't too high in that storyline either. But the entire ordeal lasted for multiple episodes, saw Olivia having to do things she never thought she'd have to in order to survive, and left her with lasting mental scars the likes of which she's honestly still dealing with well into this season. If Scandal can take a kidnapping story and have it last for five episodes, is it really too much to ask for Empire to allow its story to play out over one full episode?

I'm dead tired of telling Empire it needs to slow down. It does, but I don't want to say it anymore. Instead I'll say that the show needs to choose stories it can rush through without viewers feeling as though they've been short changed. It's done a passable job of that in the past, so I know they're capable. But what I don't know is whether or not that's a viable model for a full season of TV. I don't think it could be much worse than what we're faced with now, so I say give it a try and let's see.

Random thoughts:

--Was anyone actually surprised by the reveal that Cookie's new boy toy is somehow in league with the guys who kidnapped Hakeem? Show of hands...anyone?

--It might not be fair because Empire has actually done a good job of presenting gay characters as unique and varied, but William Fichtner's performance in this episode was the most simplistic and stereotypical portrayal of a gay man that I've seen in quite sometime. It didn't cross over into full on camp, which might actually have been for the better, but it felt like a very conscious affectation. It was highly off putting.

--I found it pretty funny and very telling that Cookie's first thought upon seeing her youngest son all tied up like that was that Lucious was behind it all.

--I'd really like to get behind the Lucious and Freda storyline, but I can't help but to think the show is going to find a way to fuck this up pretty soon.

--Jamal mentions that he's still upset about Michael, but that's where the Michael talk ends. I'll be happy when we can put all of this behind us and move on to a better story and love interest for Jamal.

--I don't think it's possible for me to care less about a story than I do about Andre's running the Gutter Life label story.

--The other thing that this show gets wrong is in deciding whether or not it takes place in the real world or something totally fabricated. On the one hand there is a lot of homophobia in the Hip-Hop community, but on the other hand they have an openly gay man who was named CEO of a Hip-Hop company and an openly gay woman who is a majority share holder. So if the world is a fabricated fantasy world, then why say the Staples Center wouldn't let Jamal play there? Why not invent a stadium, or at least come up with a better reason?

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