Empire: The Outspoken King

Posted on January 15, 2015

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Remember last week when we said “Oh, it’s so much more than a trashy soap opera” or whatever? Well, it’s totally a trashy soap opera. You don’t have a character put on a bib just before falling to her knees in front of her husband and expect to be called Masterpiece Theatre. When Anika paraded out in front of Cookie in panties and a pair of maribou mules, we knew we were diving deep into Dynasty-level camp.

Not that all depth was tossed out the window with this outing. The show clearly wants to say something about the experience of African-American gay men, which makes it automatically more interesting than just about any other soap opera-type show currently airing; at least to us. But because of the show’s campy pedigree and the genre conventions its rolling around in, we’re afraid any true examination is going to suffer from the need to keep the plot enticing. In other words, Jamal didn’t come out last night because it wasn’t the point in the plot where that needed to happen. Which is fine, and it’s certainly a good thing to make the slightly saintly Jamal look a little shallow and weak in order to give him some shading, but it’s hard to sustain a through-line when you have one character championing his right to be out and open while he clearly makes the choice to live a life of luxury rather than be true to himself. Although to be fair, Jamal doesn’t seem to be dying for fame as much as his mother is on his behalf. The story of Jamal is the story of his father, really. And while we give the show some credit for trying to paint Lucious’s homophobia in a cultural and even business light (he’s right that Jamal’s coming out isn’t necessarily going to be a winner for the Empire music audience), the fact is, it went straight to the standard Big Daddy soap opera ploy of “Do what you’re told or you lose your inheritance.” It’s just… standard trashy soap opera plotting.

But is that necessarily a bad thing, this turn toward the trashy? After all, this episode was an example of exactly what we thought the show was going to be prior to seeing it. Does the fact that we were pleasantly surprised by the depth of last week’s premiere make this decidedly more shallow episode a disappointment? Because we have to admit, we still had a lot of fun. We still clapped and laughed over Cookie’s antics.  The musical numbers were probably even better than they were in last week’s episode. And in the end, those are probably the two things that save this show from being “merely” anything. Taraji P. Henson is giving a bursting-into-flames performance and, well, things like this regularly happen.

That ain’t no Falcon Crest shit. When Tiana (Serayah McNeill) started her number, Tom turned to Lorenzo and said with glee, “THIS is what happens when a gay black man with a lot of money at his disposal decides to make a soap opera!” Pure, old-school entertainment. Not to be reductive or anything, but this show is like something Shonda Rhimes and Ryan Murphy would dream up over their third bottle of wine. If they’d called it How to Gleefully Get Away With Scandal, we wouldn’t have blamed creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong one bit.

Which is not to say that this show is derivative. FAR from it. It’s pulling from so many different shows, movies and genres that there’s truly nothing to compare it to without adding a bunch of footnotes. It’s like Dynasty, except with a mostly black cast. It’s like Scandal, except with music. It’s like Glee, except with murder. It’s not really like anything on TV right now, even when it’s clearly and obviously playing with a lot of nighttime soap opera tropes, from scheming ex-wives to murder to a family destroying itself in order to gain control of a company. Besides, Alexis Carrington Colby (etc.) and Sue Ellen Ewing wouldn’t last more than 5 seconds in a room with Cookie Lyon.

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