Taraji P. Henson and Grace Gealey in FOX’s “Empire.”
There’s a lot of astonishingly tone deaf if not downright condescending chatter right now as to “why” Empire is such a massive hit; a question or concern that didn’t greet, say, Revenge when it had a successful launch and popular first season. Certainly, it shouldn’t be considered out of bounds to discuss the cultural implications of a night-time soap opera with a predominantly black cast gaining a large audience, but there’s this underlying tone that’s part “Black people have discovered television!” and part “White teenagers have discovered black people!” Hey, how about, it’s a show with a really talented cast and creators, with a rather high number of Oscar, Emmy and Grammy nominations (and wins) among them; a situation that, if everyone involved was white, would be referred to as a show with a high “pedigree” whose success wouldn’t ever be questioned or need to be explained?
We’re gonna go with that.
We bring this up not to be confrontational (Well, okay. Maybe a little.) but because that high pedigree becomes more obvious to us with each passing week, either through beautiful writing, riveting acting or knock-your-socks-off singing – and sometimes, all three at the same time. This is some super-glossy, well-rendered entertainment that so far, hasn’t failed to deliver a fully satisfying hour each week. This might be a lazy cliche of a metaphor, but it feels like a really delicious, filling meal every time. It’s hard not to switch if off after that hour without thinking, “Well. That was fun, wasn’t it?” Even after an episode like this one, which tends to show some slight weaknesses in the storytelling and specifically, the way both Cookie and Jamal are presented.
As we’ve stated every week, we are #HereForCookie and consider any episode with a low number of Taraji P. Henson scenery-chewing moments to be an automatic disappointment, but we’re getting the distinct impression that all the thought behind creating this character was put into first impressions rather than long-term storytelling. In short, it sometimes comes across like they don’t quite know how to present her. Is she a business and music management mastermind or is she someone living in the past, with no discernible job skills, throwing around a lot of shade and attitude because she’s scared and trying to cover? We’re all for nuance, but you can’t have it both ways. Sometimes she comes across brilliant, but a lot of the time she comes across like a loud-mouthed ex-con who spews a lot of bullshit.
As for Jamal, his protestations and temper tantrums are also starting to sound like so much bullshit coming out of someone who’s scared and doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s the one character we should be most identifying with, but he’s getting increasingly pathetic with each passing week. Seriously, what is the point of refusing payment for a job well done when you really need the money? There’s principles and then there’s just straight up posing. We suppose the argument could be made that Jamal’s the only true artist in this story (and in fact, that argument has been made, in the story), but then he tends to get his head all caught up in business and personal concerns that make it seem like he’s an artist with little to say because he’s so confused about what he wants.
Now, looking over the previous two paragraphs, it strikes us that Jamal and Cookie are being rendered in roughly the same way. If this is deliberate and starts to pay itself off at some point, then we’ll be the first to applaud the subtle way it was pulled off. But right now, with both characters, we’re seeing two people we’re clearly supposed to be rooting for quite often acting like people we’re not sure deserve to be rooted for. Again, that could be by design (we never give much credence to the idea that characters need to be likable for a story to work), but considering the way these two characters can ricochet back and forth between smart and ignorant, principled and poser from scene to scene, right now it feels like a problem.
Other characters are getting shading that doesn’t seem quite so problematic or contradictory to us. Anika is getting a little more depth to her, which is good, because if all she’s gonna do is bare her claws at Cookie, she’s going to constantly come across a loser. No one rooted for Krystle Carrington, after all. We liked the genuine concern and tenderness she showed toward Lucious and the somewhat mature way she blew off Cookie’s antics in the meeting, rather than making a fool out of herself by engaging her. In addition, we get little hints here and there that she’s a smart businesswoman, if not necessarily savvy about hip hop.
Similarly, Hakeem is almost unbearably full of himself or disrespectful one minute, while the next he’s doing the cute-brother thing with Jamal, making it hard to feel anything but affection for him. There’s an underlying sense that families are complicated and people put up all kinds of fronts. What you are depends on where you are and who you’re with, which leads right into the central theme of the show so far: authenticity.
Whether it’s Cookie calling Anika yellow and fondling her pearls or pointing out that Hakeem’s about as far from the street life as your average suburbanite; whether it’s Andre having to defend his straight-laced ways and white wife; whether it’s Jamal struggling with the hard part of being an artist (feeding yourself and actually coming up with worthy art); whether it’s Lucious coming face to face with the fact that he abandoned his roots for money, everyone is struggling to keep it real. That’s true both on a personal level for each character and on a much broader scale, as it’s clearly the central question regarding who will run Empire. Bipolar businessman Andre? Pearl-clutching Anika? Street-poser Hakeem? Art-poser Jamal? Putting-up-a-front Cookie? Who will wrest control away from the man who lost his way?
And that’s why the show is a hit. Or at least one of the reasons. Because it poses questions about identity, art, authenticity and family that are universal to all people but extremely central to the African-American experience. It’s a story for everyone in its Shakespearean universality, but it’s also the story of a specific point of view.
It’s also crazy fun, so there’s that.