Empire: Unto the Breach

Posted on March 05, 2015


Estelle and Jussie Smollett in FOX’s “Empire.”


That’s the thing about formulas. The results may be repetitive, but there are times you can’t deny they work.  Last week, we were getting a little antsy with the show’s predilection for a stop-and-start kind of pacing, in which entire storylines either drop out of sight completely or shoot straight into the stratosphere unexpectedly. We also had the nerve to state that we were starting to roll our eyes a little at the constant “sing it out” response to anything dramatic. And yet last night, in the middle of an episode with too many “sing it out” moments to count (“We’re stuck in an elevator with our gigantic manic brother! SING THAT MOTHERFUCKER OUT!”) in which the almost-forgotten rivalry with barely introduced character Billy Barretti suddenly went nuclear, pushing almost every other plot line to the side for the entire hour, we couldn’t help giddily tweeting (during Estelle and Jamal’s “sing it out” moment) “GodDAMN this show is kicking all kinds of ass tonight.”

What can we say? When Empire gets it right, it really gets it right. The name of the game is pure entertainment. So much entertainment you almost feel guilty you didn’t pay to watch. There is no other reason for Empire’s success than that. Everyone involved is working their asses off to entertain the hell out of you. And when the entertainment value is high, we can forgive a lot of storytelling deficiencies.

Which isn’t to say we didn’t notice said deficiencies, just that we were in a forgiving mood because we were laughing and clapping too much. Sure, the Anika storyline suddenly exploded without warning, and in ways that struck as almost hilariously soapy – Why was she sitting there planning an ostentatious wedding with someone she’d already betrayed? – but the ripple effects were worth it. And besides, our main problem with the show’s plotting has been the illusion of change; the ways in which the characters all move around the board but never seem to progress in their stories. Well, things really changed between Anika and Lucious, in a way it seems impossible to think will ever be reversed. That first five minutes, with Cookie once again bursting into a scene and turning it upside-down (with the added benefit of Porscha being AWESOME) was electrifying because you didn’t really see it coming. Oh sure, you knew Boo-Boo Kitty wasn’t to be trusted, but you didn’t think the whole thing would see the light of day so quickly. Or we didn’t, anyway.

But soap operas constantly do make those kinds of unlikely reversals – in fact, they’re known for them –   so we won’t even complain when the wedding is back on again, as it surely will be, given this show’s track record. Yes, that plays into the whole “illusion of change” argument, but as we keep saying, if the result is as entertaining as this hour was – and COME ON, we got COOKIE LOADED ON PURPLE DRANK FOR GOD’S SAKE – we have no ground upon which to stand with any complaints. Fun is fun. In fact, fun is even more fun when really talented people are working to ensure that fun. Everyone was on their A game with this one.

Did any of it make sense? Actually, no. Anika leaving Empire should not have, in any way, put the entire company and its roster of artists in peril, unless none of the artists signed a contract and Anika didn’t sign a non-compete clause.  But you kind of wish the music industry was actually like this, don’t you? Artists free to go wherever they want with no notice, competing CEOs pulling guns on each other in the street, every single business decision sealed with a musical number. No wonder the music is good on this show. It’s produced in a world absolutely nothing like the dry, calculated MBA-run music industry of the real world. We will, however, be happy to not hear another rendition of “You’re So Beautiful” any time soon.

And wouldn’t it be great if all gay sons could confront their homophobic fathers by signing major recording artists and releasing hit singles, just so they can throw it in his face after his heterosexual dalliance throws their entire billion-dollar company into disarray? We want to live in THAT world. That world where singing is almost as good as lithium and Lamborghinis get bought on a whim.It’s all fantasy in the Dynasty mode, layered with social commentary and musical numbers. A 21st-Century mashup of genres and agendas, perfectly suited to our time; GIF and download-ready. And this episode, more than any other, we think, demonstrates just why that combination works so well when it’s in the hands of the right people.


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