After Ryan Murphy revived the musical as narrative television with Glee, television has been brave enough to revisit the genre. Smash, set on Broadway, was ambitious but uneven ultimately ending at just two seasons.
Now FOX has banked on a hip-hop musical with Empire -but don’t let that put you off. There’s more here than meets the ear.
This is a dynastic drama with Lucious Lyon (Terence Howard) at the centre of its universe. He is both family patriarch and CEO of the family business, Empire Entertainment. Empire is like a contemporary Motown, producing hip hop artists with much success. But Lucious has also been diagnosed with ALS and has just three years to live. With a ticking time bomb he faces the question: which of his three sons will run the business after he is gone?
Youngest son is Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Y. Gray) the bad boy, rising star, enjoying all the trappings of celebrity. Think Usher. Middle son is Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett), the serious singer-songwriter who writes emotional, soulful pop. Think John Legend. He also happens to be gay, which puts him at odds with his homophobic father. Then there is Andre Lyon (Trai Byers) the corporate suit and most ambitious of all.
The fifth key player is Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious’ ex-wife who begins the series being released from prison. Looking remarkably like Janet Jackson, but with the firepower of Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, Cookie is a force to be reckoned with. She is determined to claim her half of the family company and will draw upon family members to get what she wants.
There is also a backstory that details much more about the early beginnings of the company and brushes with the law.
In the middle of these various tugs of war are songs, usually performed by Hakeem or Jamal (but not exclusively), that complement the story. While they are not as character-driven as Glee, or as opulent as Smash, they bring some colour to the show and occasionally some comment.
It’s hard not to see some parallels with Motown, run by Berry Gordy, who had a relationship with Diana Ross. But that would make Hakeem the equivalent of Redfoo and we can’t have that… There’s even a wry “Who’s Diana Ross?” line. Shameless!
The performances are one of the show’s best assets. Taraji P. Henson, Terence Henderson and Jussie Smollett are amongst the best -but really, we’re splitting hairs. This is a solid ensemble, backed up with an entertaining plot (even if it has borrowed from King Lear).
Empire’s strengths should come as no surprise given the rich DNA behind the scenes. It is co-created by Lee Daniels (Monster’s Ball, The Butler, Precious) and Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) with The L Word‘s Ilene Chaiken also penning episodes and music produced by Timbaland.
In addition to Gabourey Sidibe (American Horror Story) in a supporting role, the series has attracted appearances from Cuba Gooding Jr., Gladys Knight, Naomi Campbell, Macy Gray, Courtney Love and Judd Nelson. No wonder it is pulling in huge crowds in the USA.
Empire is dripping with bling and high stakes and deserves your attention.
9pm Sunday on TEN