Jussie Smollett, Terence Howard, Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers in FOX’s “Empire.”
That’s right. You heard us. BIG. HOT. MESS.
We should’ve never looked around at social media or other reviewers before sitting down to write this, because there was so much “SLAAAAAAYYYYY!!!!!!” and so little of what we were thinking, which was “Jesus, that was kind of bad.” And hey, that’s fine. We’re all for going our own way on the opinion front, but it had us seriously questioning our reaction and wondering if we should bother writing anything negative, since a finger to the digital wind tells us that nobody’s going to want to hear any complaining after those two explosive hours.
But these back-to-back episodes serving as a 2-hour finale weren’t without their charms, so before you get the knives out, allow us to delineate them.
1) The Cookie vs. Anika Brawl
Girl, we could’ve watched 40 straight minutes of that beatfest, except we probably would’ve passed out from lack of oxygen, considering all the hooting and laughing we were doing. It was EVERYTHING. And by that we mean it was everything we could have asked for out of a Cookie/Anika throwdown. That pearl-wearing bitch got served, but we have to admit we were impressed by her fortitude. She may have gotten her ass kicked, but she went down fighting (and choking until she almost passed out, but still). We realize Cookie can veer dangerously close to shrieking caricature (if not step over the line repeatedly) but godDAMN if Taraji P. Henson wasn’t drop-to-the-floor hilarious in this scene. Krystle, Alexis and that fountain? Pales in comparison. Literally.
2) The Hostile Takeover
In a way, it seemed almost inevitable that things would shake out this way, but that takes away from the skill in the writing and the way this was set up. It may have happened WAY too fast (and we’ll say more on that in a second), but Cookie, Anika, Hakeem, and Andre teaming up to take down Lucious is a damn juicy development and more firmly sets this show alongside the fellow titans of the family business night time soap opera genre (of which there are a surprisingly high number of examples), Dallas and Dynasty.
3) The Musical Numbers, as always
While we think the musical guest stars are starting to become a distraction, Empire is coming very close to becoming a straight-up musical, in the sense that perfectly coordinated “spontaneous” numbers that serve to illustrate the singers’ emotional states are now common enough to occur several times an episode. There are scenes where the characters rehearse or perform and it seems very natural and part of their day-to-day lives. Then there are scenes like the – to be perfectly honest, slightly bizarre – sing-off between Jamal and Lucious that didn’t remotely feel natural or realistic but, in that perfect classic musical manner, it showed you the depths of their feelings about each other and it literally wound up changing their relationship drastically by the time the song was over. It served as an explanation for why Lucious would suddenly do a complete 180 on Jamal. Or it tried to, anyway.
And that makes a perfect segue into the complaining portion of this review.
Look, we love this show when it’s really on, but sometimes it can get unforgivably goofy as hell. The way that scene with Jamal and Lucious was shot and performed, if you didn’t know anything about the two characters and who they were, you’d be quite right to assume it was a scene with two men in love with each other. And while that’s literally true – in fact, we muttered during the scene, “Damn, these two are unhealthily obsessed with each other.” – the homoeroticism was completely out of left field and, given everything we’ve been shown so far about these two characters, has to be considered unintentional. Everything about that scene looked like it was supposed to end with some deep tongue kissing. It was such an odd choice.
And that scene with the gifts? Where Lucious raided King Tut’s tomb or something? Who does that? Who finds a 20-pound solid gold cross to give to someone just to say, “I support your new spiritual choices?” Or gives a 20-pound solid gold eagle to someone to say “You can use the company jet when you want?” We realize the character of Lucious is given to flights of grandiosity but this shit is just weird. He gave Jamal a sceptre. A SCEPTRE. And he wasn’t even being ironic about it. We half expected there to be a full blown coronation, with ermine-trimmed capes and crowns. And did he go out and have that tiny little pillow and pillowcase made? Is there an art department in the basement of his mansion, churning these props out for him on the regular?
Also, we’re FAR from experts – or even conversant much – on the matter, but we’re gonna go out on a limb and suggest no one won a rap battle by wailing high-pitched tunes about being gay. As much as that scene had power to move us on an emotional level, we still couldn’t embrace it because it seemed to have occurred on some distant planet. It was just too wish-fulfillment-oriented for us to enjoy it. But we can say as much about Jamal’s whole story, which allows us to segue to our next point: the insane plotting and pacing.
We’re in an age of television where the temptation (and pressure) on the part of show creators to ramp up the insanity in order to make something as tweetable as possible has become something of the new norm – at least with network shows. Streaming and cable-based dramas like Orange is the New Black or Mad Men can take their time and let plots unfold because they know there’s a high rewatch factor. But a new network show needs to turn every week into an event in order to constantly feed eyeballs to the advertising machine that supports it, and it does this while working against a tide of content competition the likes of which no one’s ever seen in this industry. This is at least partially why Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes have become so successful and influential as show runners; they’ve perfected the shock-and-awe, give-them-a-spectacle method of series writing that everyone is now trying to copy. We understand why Empire’s plotting is insane and even why large portions of the audience prefer it that way, but we maintain, as we did in last week’s review, that it’s simply unsustainable as a method of storytelling over the long haul and it sacrifices characterization and reflection way too much for the story to have much resonance.
We’ll see what happens next season for both shows, but when we look at Empire or How to Get Away with Murder, we see two shows that are going to find it impossible to outdo their first seasons on the shocking plot developments front. With Empire, all the characters have been put through years of changes and developments in the space of a few months. The worst of the bunch is Jamal, who’s rocketed through so many life-changing moments that the show hasn’t ever really given him the opportunity to have a true emotional reaction to any of them. He broke up with someone he’d been with for a considerable length of time, found out he was a father, then found out he wasn’t a father, and came out in a hugely public manner. And that’s not even a third of what he’s gone through this season – and yet we barely get to know how he feels about these things before the next life-changing event comes along. Next thing we know, is threatening to throw people off balconies just to get his father’s approval. We can believe Jamal can get to that point, but the show never made much of an attempt to show how or why. The writers clearly had a plan to have him sitting on the throne and in his father’s good graces by the season finale, but from where they started him in episode 1, they couldn’t get there without some egregiously bad leaps of logic and storytelling. Had this been a 22-episode season or had they let Jamal’s story play out for another season before getting to this point, this all would’ve made a lot of sense.
There were similar storytelling and logical leaps for all the main characters this season. Cookie’s motivations, feelings for Lucious and status within the company, not to mention which of her sons she favored most, changed with the wind, seemingly, but she’s a histrionic character who seeks out drama, so all of that made a certain amount of sense. Hakeem is immature, so his ever-changing relationship with both of his parents (and his clear mommy issues) also make a certain amount of sense. And not to be crude about it, but giving a character like Andre a bipolar condition means you never have to explain any of his sudden turnarounds. But Lucious drives the story and all the characters react to what he’s doing, while Jamal is a very clear stand-in for show creator Lee Daniels to work through his own issues growing up as a gay black man. They are the two most important characters in the story and everything revolves around what they do and how the other characters are going to react to it. You can’t afford to have them both act so irrationally all the time and expect the story to make much sense. Yes, there was a lot of fun to be had in these two hours, but there was just as much time during the show where we sat there with extremely puzzled looks on our faces because suddenly, someone was doing something that made no sense.
Seriously, pearl girl Anika is going to sleep with Hakeem to get back at Lucious? What part of her established character and background would have her doing something like that?
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[Photo Credit: FOX]
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