The controversial FOX family drama Empire came out swinging for its premiere last week (insert Cookie broomstick beatdown meme here), and last night’s episode continued the nonstop excitement. Now we see why 50 Cent was so mad about the (insignificant) similarities between this show and the one he executive produces, the STARZ crime drama series Power—Empire hits the “entertaining” mark so much harder.
While the show’s portrayal of what it’s like to own, work for or be signed to a hip-hop label in 2015 may be questionable, the show delivers when it comes to pace and attitude. If nothing else, you’ll be hooked based on Taraji P. Henson’s dynamic take on Lucious’s ex-wife, Cookie Lyon. Her one-liners make everything all right in the world. Seriously.
With his secret ALS diagnosis weighing heavy on his mind (flashbacks take us through his doctor visits and MRI scans), last night Lucious Lyon filed for Empire Enterprises to become a publicly traded company, taking it from “the streets to Wall Street,” and upping the ante for the family vying for his seat.
Lucious can’t decide which of his three sons should take over the company, but he has no qualms about pitting them against each other and dangling that “heir to the throne” carrot to see who’ll fight the hardest for it. The oldest son, Andre, is a suited-up Wharton Business School graduate and serves as Empire’s CFO. Yes, he’s the most obvious heir, but he also lacks the musical talent and inherent swag his younger brothers have in spades. Andre’s wife Rhonda, (think: Kelly Pitts on The Game) is his co-conspirator in the quest to take over the company, but guess what? She’s also a little too enthusiastic about making sure Andre is taking his medication for his bipolar disorder. Rhonda uses a baby bib like we’ve never seen before.
The explosive Cookie is back at Empire after spending nearly two decades in federal prison on drug charges. She won’t let anyone forget it was her $400,000 in drug money that launched the company. Like any good mother, she goes head-to-head with Lucious fighting over their other two sons: Hakeem, the hip-hop artist, and the middle son Jamal, a singer-songwriter with a forthcoming album.
Both burgeoning talents, Lucious has Hakeem set to headline a show at his new nightclub Leviticus, but Cookie demands that he let Jamal perform too. Obviously her favorite child, Cookie also encourages Jamal to publicly reveal he’s gay, thinking that capitalizing on his sexuality will mean album sales. Lucious’s homophobia feels dated here, but props to the show for addressing the topic.
Bad baby boy Hakeem is enjoying the perks of being the prince of the Empire a little too much. As he sets his eye on the label’s latest singee, a gorgeous R&B singer named Tiana, he gets drunk at a bar, urinates a few steps away and documents it all in a viral video. The cherry on top of his mess? He shouts out President Obama as a “sellout,” leaving his dad to call Barack and apologize. (Barack isn’t having it, hanging up on Lucious.)
In yet another storyline during the episode, Lucious’s plan to have his label’s rap star, Kidd Fo Fo, perform at the club with Hakeem is foiled when the MC is surrounded by controversy after being involved in a mall shooting. When Cookie barges in on a meeting and gives her two cents on Fo Fo’s skills (“You don’t need to drop him because of his music, drop him because his music sucks”), Lucious disagrees. But one more confrontation later, where Fo Fo clearly disrespects Cookie and Fo Fo is no longer an Empire artist, Cookie starts to see a glimmer of Lucious softening to her.
In the teaser for next week’s episode, we see Cookie being told by a federal investigator that she needs to testify before a grand jury, and she’s shook.
Empire is toeing the line between reality and fantasy with some fancy very footwork. With hip-hop as the backdrop, it’s really a family drama with enough modern-day references to keep things fun and fresh. We can’t wait to see the next two-step.