If you were lucky enough to watch the series premiere of Fox’s new musical family drama Empire last night, then you know Taraji P. Henson is a beast.
She is so fierce as Cookie, a fresh-from-prison mother of three determined to reclaim her throne, that viewers Wednesday night were tweeting about her performance with a level of gusto and enthusiasm usually reserved for turns on more established favorites such as Scandal.
Speaking of Scandal, the ABC drama’s creator Shonda Rhimes even took to Twitter to sing Henson’s praises.
But back to the debut episode, which deftly laid the foundation for Empire, a sudsy drama destined to become one of the most talked about and addictive series on the small screen. A cross between Shakespeare’s King Lear and the 1980s greed-is-good hit Dynasty, this freshman offering from Lee Daniels (Precious) and Danny Strong (The Butler and Game Change) is packed with riches. Here are five reasons Empire will hook you and keep you coming back:
1. The Tension Between Cookie and Lucious
Terrence Howard stars as Lucious Lyon, a tirelessly ruthless businessman who launched his lucrative music label Empire Entertainment with drug money he earned along with his ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Henson). Cookie took the wrap for slinging dope and while she served time, Lucious transformed his company into an international, billon-dollar success. Oh, and he divorced Cookie in prison and never visited her. Oops! Now Cookie is a free woman after serving 17 years behind bars and she wants her cut of the fame and fortune and probably a little revenge. OK. A lot of revenge. After all, her $400,000 bankrolled the label.
Tuning in to see just how badly Cookie wants her due – and what she is willing to do to Lucious to get it –is going to be a treat. In the pilot, one of her first moves was to undermine Lucious and take control of her son Jamal’s (an impressive Jussie Smollett) burgeoning career.
Meanwhile, Lucious loathes Jamal because he is gay and because he’s not Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), his undeniable favorite. Trai Byers rounds out the cast as Andre, Cookie and Lucious’ eldest and most cutthroat son.
2. The Slamming Soundtrack
While Empire is already drawing comparisons to ABC’s Nashville and Fox’s Glee for its live performances, the primetime soap has a unique and catchy sound all its own.
This, of course, is due in large part to the sheer talent of Timbaland, the executive music producer behind Empire. The Grammy-winning musical force made our heads bob in the premiere with “Live In the Moment” from Smollett and Gray and had us reaching for the Kleenex with heartbreaking ballads such as “Good Enough” and “What Is Love,” featuring V. Bozeman.
The segment featuring “Good Enough,” passionately performed by Smollett, was especially hard to watch. That’s where we saw a flashback of a viciously homophobic Lucious throwing a young Jamal in a garbage can because he wore his mother’s high heels. Daniels said his own father’s homophobia inspired the scene. Here’s the clip:
3. Cookie’s One-Liners
OK, we already established the fact that Henson, an Oscar-nominated actress, is the heartbeat of Empire. But one of her strongest suits is the way in which she delivers her lines. In one scene, she’s calling Lucious’ new wife “Boo Boo Kitty” and in another, she’s lamenting why she had avoided rocking a full head of weave for years. “Girls walking around with their scalps smelling like goat ass.”
Tweeps really loved that one.
4. The Heir Apparent
Although it’s pretty clear Lucious wants Hakeem to take over Empire Entertainment, he made it seem like all things are equal when he said the son who proves most worthy will inherit it all. Curiously, the trio didn’t ask dear old dad why he was announcing his plans to pass on the family business. Viewers know, of course, that Lucious has been diagnosed with ALS and has about three years to live. Hopefully, it will take a few episodes and not a few years for the brothers three to start questioning their father’s motives.
While Andre is ruthless and educated enough to run it all, he isn’t musically inclined like his siblings. Making matters more juicy and complicated, Jamal and Hakeem seem close for now but if the previews are any indication, that bond will eventually break under the pressure of Lucious and Cookie’s forceful hands. Speaking of previews, how cool is it that Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love are going to appear in future episodes? Too exciting!
5. Lucious Is Fun to Hate
Like a black J.R. Ewing, Howard’s turn as Lucious is spellbindingly cold, calculating and murderous. He’s a homophobic womanizer who doesn’t think twice about pitting his sons against one another or discarding the mother of his children. And in a couple of instances, Lucious brought up the violent deaths of two different people’s brothers. Who does that?
Worse still, we saw him kill his childhood friend and former sidekick in the opening episode but who else has Lucious murdered? After seeing how he shot Bunkie in cold blood, he probably had something to do with Dottie’s death. In case you missed it, she was the woman Lucious mentioned hooking up with shortly after Cookie went to prison. Just how much did Dottie know and did she die because of that?
There are also those detractors who are still mad at Howard – not Lucious – for saying that the women he dates have to use baby wipes after, uhm, using the bathroom.
Here’s one of the tweets on that:
But seriously, isn’t it time folks let that go? He said that nearly eight years ago. He probably doesn’t even remember uttering that. Or maybe, just maybe the actor, who is also Oscar nominated, is too busy delivering one of the best performances of his career to worry about stuff he said in the past.
With any luck, those same folks will keep watching Empire and transfer that vitriol to Lucious – and not the actor who plays him.
What did you think of Empire? Please share your thoughts below.