examining the show that’s climbing the charts
What is Empire?
Created by Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) and Danny Strong (Justified, Mad Men), Empire is a primetime soap opera about a family and their record label. The show follows patriarch Lucious Lyon, who pits his three sons against one another for control of his “empire” after getting diagnosed with ALS. (One of them, after learning of this plot, says, “What is this, King Lear?” Yup.) As this is happening, Lucious’s estranged wife Cookie has been let out of jail after 17 years so that she can inform on other drug dealers. She seeks to reconnect with her sons while retaking control of the company she helped her husband build.
M: It’s a lot like Dallas in that it is about a family business, but also in that it has no idea how that business works in real life. It’s TV business. In fact, it’s TV everything.
T: But that’s the beauty of the show. Its soap opera logic—which is to say, no [logic at all]—keeps you constantly on your toes.
On the logic of Empire
M: I like to think that Empire is exemplified by Lucious’s boardroom, where much of the action of the show takes place: it is on the ground floor of the Empire building, it’s made of glass, and what happens inside frequently makes no sense in terms of character or plot. Why would anyone ever want to do business there?
T: Right. I think that’s where the soap opera elements come in. Characters are completely malleable to the writer’s whims rather than developing in a way that informs the conflict. Tiana is a lesbian because it threatens Hakeem’s success … and then she isn’t, because she needs a reason to want to stay at Empire instead of going to their rivals. As much as Lucious proves to have zero business sense, at least his character is shown to be consistently looking out only for himself.
M: I think a lot of people want to compare Empire to Shondaland shows because of strong black protagonists and drama and the like, but those ABC programs are all about tension and the impossible ratcheting up of stakes. Empire, on the other hand, is paced as if it doesn’t know what to do with the plot points hanging in the air. Many, many things, like Andre’s living with bipolar disorder, are forgotten about for episodes on end, only to have them problematically reappear when it is convenient. Also, super gross how the writers leave that on the table like a loaded gun.
T: Yeah, for a show that tries to cover a wealth of flashpoints—homophobia (particularly in rap culture), BDSM, race tensions—Andre’s mental illness has always seemed the most problematic to me. If the writers let a storyline evolve over more than one episode, maybe some of the character development would have a chance to come to a head. It seems like the first three minutes of every episode are a tidy resolution of whatever cliffhanger was introduced in the last episode. For instance, Anika’s betrayal of Lucious could have been something that carried throughout the rest of the season and hurt the company at a critical time. Instead Porsha saves the day (come on, really?) and we see Lucious immediately regain power by leveraging Anika’s father’s fraud against her. In some ways Lucious seems invincible. In the first episode he murders someone and so far he has paid zero consequences for it. The more traditional soap opera arc would draw out the suspicion of the murder much longer.
M: They even forget that Lucious has ALS for long amounts of time until he just says, “I’m dying! Give me a break!” It’s as if the writers forget the inciting incident of the show.
T: Yeah. I loved how the parody of the show on Saturday Night Live this past weekend hit that nail on the head.
The Music Business
M: As one might expect, Empire doesn’t really have a handle on how the music business works. All decisions are made in a boardroom. People listen to a song for three seconds, then decide it’s a hit. Hakeem, the youngest son who is basically a baby Big Sean, asks for an extra million dollars for a video he’s shooting on a cheap green screen. Important musical work is done multiple times in a run-down studio in Bushwick called Ghetto Ass Studios. Also, the music is routinely awful, like that song that sampled “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits.
T: I’ve always thought of Empire’s use of music as a weird Glee effect. Like Fox’s execs were just like, “Hey, let’s make sure we can get a live tour out of this.” The music and characters are parodies of the actual industry, but Fox is trying to sell the music as real. I would say it’s one of my least favorite parts of the show. However, I think when the music ties together the history of the company and gives you a peek at how Lucious used to be, it can be an effective tool. For example, by bringing in artists from before the company took off, like Elle (Courtney Love), the show forces Cookie and Lucious to talk about the old days of their marriage.
M: You can really see the pieces of actual artists that the writers are cobbling together. Like in Jamal’s latest video, he’s doing an impression of Prince’s Camille voice while visually aping D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” and in general, he’s just like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean put together.
T: If Empire has one redeeming hope in character development, it’s Cookie. Recently released from jail on drug dealing charges (money that founded Empire), Cookie must struggle to reconnect with her sons and deal with the ex-husband who burned her (and whom she still loves). And man, does Taraji P. Henderson just kill this character. Cookie is funny, smart, and fiercely loyal to her family. And she is the only character that is at least sometimes able to call Lucious out on his bullshit. What makes her character so compelling is that her motivations are never pushed to the side—everything she does is to protect Empire and her sons. And her outfits are amazing.
M: But I’m afraid that Cookie will be further Bart Simpson–ized into a character that is just a source of unpredictable craziness and catchphrases. She already has “boo boo kitty” (a dig at Lucious’s then-fiancée Anika with no precise meaning) and the writers just made her say “Bye, Felicia” to Anika, not to mention saying “Have some of these cookies!” to her bodyguard while drunk and with her legs splayed. At least we got over the five-episode stretch where she would just break into board meetings constantly.
T: But even when they ratchet up her character, it’s still Cookie. It also concerned me how clownish she was in the last episode, but more so because she seemed to be falling into a position of inferiority to Lucious and she’s really the only person I could foresee getting in Lucious’s way. Cookie needs to reassert that Empire is her company too or she’s going to get steamrollered. With only two more episodes (one by the time this is printed), I’m excited to see what drama is around the corner
Empire airs its last episode of the season this Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox. You can get more commentary on Empire from Tonya and Max on twitter at @tonyajoriley and @maxgenecov.