Bryshere Gray and Taraji P. Henson in FOX’s “Empire.”
We need to relearn this lesson with every season, because we have this amazing tendency to block it from our memories, but it turns out, spending a week attending and reporting on New York Fashion Week while trying to get a full slate of posts out every day is virtually impossible. And since our TV reviewing process each Fashion Week inevitably turns into “Perch on the edge of a hotel bed with a laptop, praying that the digital TV doesn’t go wonky again while I take my notes,” it’s always the TV stuff that suffers. So forgive us, both for being late with these reviews and for slamming them together when each of the divas involved deserves her own post. We’ll try and do better when this crazy week is over.
In defense of this review mashup, there was a common thread running through both of these very different shows this week. We like to call it “Shit gets even crazier.”
Empire: Out, Damned Spot
We joked the other day that our first impression of this episode was “The Adventures of Cookie Lyon, Awesome Person,” and in a way, that’s true. We get to see her be the incredible music producer and hustler we’ve been repeatedly told she can be. We get to see the depths inside her, as she confronts a drug addicted artist or a son twisted up with hate for her. And of course, we get to see her make one of her now-patented Killer Cookie Exits as she reminds Anika what an ass is supposed to look like, according to Cookie Lyon. But as much fun as that ass-baring scene was, it’s a perfect example of the most likely way this show is going to deteriorate if it isn’t careful.
There have been FAR too many words written on why Empire is a monster hit, but we will firmly stick to the Gordian Knot of explanations: it’s an extremely well-written show with fantastic performances and mega-high production values with a jaw-dropping string of talent involved from the top down. It’s very much a night-time soap opera and it knows exactly what that means, but it also knows it can reach heights one wouldn’t expect from that genre simply because of the talent it has on tap and the themes and issues it’s exploring. Everything from homophobia to the Nation of Islam gets the spotlight and the show isn’t remotely afraid of asking questions or making inflammatory points. It’s a show that’s both smart AND bold, which is an incredibly rare combination for television.
But when it opened with Cookie’s outrageous little fashion show and ended the opening scene with her slapping her own ass and making that exit, as much as we loved it, we cringed just a little. We’re all for the camp and the fun and the Cookie Moments, but they have to make at least a little sense or she becomes a sitcom character. Why on earth would Lucious invite his ex-wife to a dinner announcing his engagement? And why would she, when she realizes what’s happening, immediately do the one thing that makes her look the most pathetic in the eyes of pretty much everyone there, from Anika to her sons? It was funny and all, but none of it really made any sense from an emotional point of view. Lucious put her in a humiliating situation for no reason we can tell, and then she turned around and made sure to humiliate herself even further. To be perfectly frank, it came off like something designed to be turned into a bunch of Tumblr gifs. By all means, have fun with this show, creators, but don’t turn it into a drag ball. Or at least, don’t fall into that trap too often.
In other Empire news, everyone is utterly brutal to everyone else in this downright medieval landscape. Maybe that mutual humiliation session was making a point, because everyone is in danger of, well, everyone else in this world. Vernon finds out that Lucious killed Bunky and starts choking Andre for covering for him. Andre then threatens to slit Vernon’s throat after telling his very excited bib-wearing wife the “good news” that Lucious is a murderer. Anika makes a play for Porscha, even though she’s already got Cookie’s husband. Hakeem is humiliated by Tiana and threatened by Jamal’s impending success, so he goes much darker in his rap. Jamal, flush with the excitement of being on the verge of a stardom he once claimed he didn’t want, throws his boyfriend under the bus by denying his existence.
Brutality all around. It’s no wonder that Cookie latched onto the kicked-to-the-curb former superstar Elle Dallas (not Houston, because that might be unsubtle, you see) and made her Cookie’s own little rehab project. Sure, there was something about how Elle deserved better and Cookie got through prison because of her music, but what it really came down to was Cookie needing to show some kindness to someone in this brutal world she’s playing in. It’s why her character deserves more than just drag-snap exit lines. Her strength as well as her vulnerability really make this show what it is.
Oh, but don’t think we didn’t LOVE EVERY SECOND of that “Billie Jean” bomb-drop at the end.
How to Get Away With Murder: She’s a Murderer
Okay, everyone on this show needs to go to jail. Or to hell. We’re not picky. The point is, everyone is horrible. This is not quite the same as Empire‘s Shakespearean world of brutality, though. Empire tells a story of a group of people practically forced into their brutal ways because of family history, long-simmering resentments, competing agendas and a hellacious amount of money on the line. How to Get Away With Murder is the story of a bunch of horrible people who all seemed to find each other so they could be horrible together. For no apparent reason. It’s why this show, which it can be fun in its twists and turns, fails to make the silliness of its plot work. We’re never given any reasons as to why everyone is, well, so freaking horrible.
The Keating Four starts doubting Annalise’s commitment both to Sparkle Motion and to keeping them out of jail, while the world (quite rightly) starts looking at her as the main suspect in her husband’s murder. Thankfully, their presence in this episode is somewhat lessened, which means we don’t have to deal with their wooden whining and the fact that we kind of want all of them to face a firing squad. Rebecca turns out to be shady as hell and Wes deserves every bit of evil that’s going to fall on his head for even getting involved with her. Meanwhile Hannah Keating practically chews up the front porch and spits it out in the face of the cops who’ve come to announce Sam’s death. It’s so much fun having another actress in the cast who can tear it up as much as Viola can. Marcia Gay Harden knows exactly what to do with this character and her J’accuse was practically a master class in focus-pulling. In response to all this suspicion and heat on her, Annalise snorts, “You gonna arrest me because my grief doesn’t look the way you want it?” and storms into her classroom to intone “WHEN IN DOUBT, SHUT YOUR MOUTH” to her students.
Now, we can take a lot of plot silliness when we’re prepared to, but this goes beyond anything like normal human behavior. First, that she would even act this way and second, that it all wouldn’t blow up in her face as an enormous scandal. There’s just no way in the real world she’d be teaching and pleading cases before the court in her current situation. No matter what else happened this episode, we could not get past the basic premise of it; that Annalise would just soldier on and everyone would simply stand back and let her.
And she couldn’t, of course, take a case that would get her any sympathy, either from the public, the prosecutor’s office or the audience. No, she had to defend heroin-trafficking mafiosos who show their appreciation by saying things like “Chocolate and Italian wine go well together” while all but wiggling their eyebrows and twirling their mustaches. It’s all too broad and silly for words. And for what? She’s ruined her relationship with the prosecutor’s office and once again made a mockery of a courtroom. To be honest, she’s coming off like a bit of psychopath lately. Why is that? Why does Annalise do any of what she does? We don’t mean “What’s her game plan?” because we know it’s full of twists and turns (like framing your married lover for your husband’s murder in order to protect the real murderers who you probably masterminded into doing it in the first place). We mean, why is she acting this way? How does she manage to go through life stomping all over everyone while maintaining this vicitmized image of herself? These aren’t fascinating layers. These are straight up contradictions without any explanation. We joked earlier in the season about how her performance was high drag, but now that we’re nearing the end of the season we’re starting to see that it’s little more than that. It’s a wonderful performance, but it has no depth to it because nothing about Annalise feels like a real person.