Empire: Pilot

Posted on January 08, 2015

Empire
Jussie Smollett and Taraji P. Henson in “Empire” on FOX.

 

We’re here for Cookie.

At our most hopeful (not that we gave it much thought), we figured this show would be a trashy-fun soap opera with an unusually high number of Oscar nominees and winners involved. We’d laugh and clap at the bitchery and costumes and maybe get a decent song or two to see us out. And to be fair, FOX probably hasn’t done a very good job of promoting this show, which is why we went into it with only the barest minimum of entertainment expectations. The “Black Dynasty” and “Brownton Abbey” jokes were just begging to be written in next-morning recaps, going by the soapiness of the promotional materials.

We didn’t expect what we got, which was a HIGHLY entertaining hour (and a story that’s a surprisingly faithful homage to The Lion in Winter) full of heartwrenching drama, scenery-destroying melodrama, high comedy (we laughed more during this hour than we do during most sitcom half-hours) and not just “decent” songs, but flipping excellent ones. As a comedy/crime/melodrama/musical soap opera, it’s sui generis, but if we had to compare it to anything, we have to be honest and admit that at the end of the hour we couldn’t stop thinking of Old Hollywood entertainment and the days when you could get comedy, drama and music all for one ticket.

Now, our tendency to diva worship is both mitochondrial and well-known at this point, so you would be forgiven for taking this with a grain of salt, but Taraji P. Henson is TEARING IT THE HELL UP in this series, at a level that blew us right out of our seats because it was so unexpected. It’s a uniformly good cast, and special attention must be paid to Terrence Howard, whose Lucious Lyon looms huge over the story, part Big Daddy, part J.R. Ewing. But by the halfway point of the episode, it started feeling like any scene without Taraji in it was a scene waiting for her to show up and get shit started. There’s a big enough story here to give everyone in this large cast something to do (and the script does a fairly efficient job of laying out every character’s motivation and agenda – and there are a ton), but like Katherine Hepburn playing Eleanor of Aquitaine in the Lion in Winter (a queen let out of jail by a dying king in order to divvy up their empire among their three scheming sons), the story feels very much like it belongs to Taraji at the moment. And like Hepburn’s Eleanor in that earlier film (which you all should see enough times that you can quote it from beginning to end), Henson’s Cookie is getting all the best, bitchiest, most quotable lines.

Our only complaint was the “shocking” reveal at the end, which didn’t quite jibe with the previous 59 minutes and felt like a cheat somehow. Remember in the first episode of Mad Men how that final shocking reveal that Don had a wife and kids brilliantly cast the previous hour in a new light? That’s clearly the kind of thing they were going for here but it didn’t quite land for us. The script did a good job of rendering Luscious in a nuanced, if not outright unflattering light (the trashcan scene really brought the bile up even as it asked important questions about homosexuality and community support among African-American men), but it didn’t give us reason to expect that final scene. It came of like a twist for the sake of having a twist.

We’re going to take that final disappointment as a reminder that this could all go very cliched very easily. It helps us to not get our hopes up too high on this being a fabulously high-quality prime time soap (Revenge and even the new Dallas started off really well before petering out almost immediately) and it helps us appreciate the parts that are working really well.

We’ll probably have more to say on a Thursday when we’re not dealing with the People’s Choice Awards red carpet, but for now, we’re here for Cookie.

 

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