American culture tends to value anti-heroes, and concepts of Black enterprise tend to garner followings. The notion itself is an anti-heroic construct because it transcends a system put in place to discourage it. It’s why a character like Stringer Bell remains one of the most popular on The Wire despite getting involved with his lieutenant’s ex on top of ordering his death. It’s partially why The Blueprint-era Jay Z — the man who goes from selling water to a well to earning $80 million— is so revered.
The Black enterprise genre is already crowded— Power executive producer 50 Cent has already called out FOX’s new series Empire for being a knockoff of his Starz show. The drug game plays a part in both, but Empire is no copy. And it’s possible the network has found a new flagship show.
Plot-wise, there was only little to add to the unpromising trailer. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the CEO of the Empire Entertainment record label, a business partially financed by his past life as a drug dealer. His ex-wife, the brash Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), returns after doing a 17-year bid for taking the brunt of the fall for their hand in the drug game. She believes she deserves partially ownership of the company for her role as a scapegoat.
Lucious has just found out he has maybe three years to live and has to choose who’ll inherit Empire between his three sons: hip-hop hopeful Hakeem, musically talented Jamal (who happens to be gay), and Andre, the manipulative college-educated son. Andre attempts to pit the siblings against each other by convincing Cookie to manage Jamal, while Lucious (who resents Jamal for his sexuality) manages Hakeem. Theoretically, the two will tear each other apart to leave room for Andre to take over.
The plot is interesting enough to work. You also have your noticeable but not overly damning flaws. The Timbaland-produced score’s piano and violins played for dramatic effect comes off as satirical. The writing is also cliche at times: no one finishes a 17-year bid to just use their first free breaths of fresh air to make a mission statement.
However, the characters are strong enough to hold the show together. Lucious, who’s played excellently by Howard (which makes sense, since he did star in Hustle & Flow), is the most intriguing. He neither fits the prototype of a man trying to stay clean or one stuck in his old ways. For now, you have a combination of altruistic ambition and ruthlessness, and you’re not quite sure about the dominant trait because each side is played so convincingly.
At the beginning of the premiere, Lucious is tearing up at the thought of his deteriorating health and decrying the Internet age of music: “It’s impossible for the disenfranchised kids in the projects to overcome adversity in the way that I did.” But he’s no saint. He tosses his young son Jamal in the garbage — we’re sadly being literal here — for walking in heels as a child, and straight up murders a childhood friend at point black rank for blackmail. But Howard’s austerity and hazel eyes remain charismatic throughout.
Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie is very mercurial, beating Hakeem with a broom for his attitude and barking at men on a moment’s notice. Like Lucious, a big reason why she compels is the actress. Henson is sharp— her style is as bold as her anachronistic fur outfits. The rest of the performances weren’t all that impressive, but the character dynamics — both outer and inner — are potential dynamite. Hakeem sucks as a rapper, so he might be doomed to fail. Jamal is the “good guy,” but carries animosity toward his father. Andre might be a sociopath. His character isn’t developed well, but he’s still a wildcard.
The Empire pilot does leave the show at a decent place. If we’re judging by the first episode alone, the show is basically a deconstruction of the Black enterprise come-up. As glorified as it is, it’s easy to forget the fall is in close approximation (again: Stringer Bell from The Wire didn’t last). Lucious starts at the top with this quixotic idea of music as a saving grace. It isn’t long before his flaws cause his downfall.