2015-02-23_2123After 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


  1. Empire is the best U.S show to come across to Oz. I really do hope it finds an audience here as Cookie is one of the best characters on TV in a long while! The pilot is pretty great but by episode 3, i dare say it, it is must watch television. I really do hope it finds an audience here as it really does deserve it.

  2. Pleased Ten decided to show Empire in a better timeslot than first advertised. Empire is doing very well in the US and hopefully that transpires to Australian TV. There was a considerable increase in the ratings of I’m A Celebrity and Shark Tank so they should provide Empire with a solid lead in.

  3. I’m absolutely hooked on this show. I disagree with smit0847 Cookie is one of the best characters on the show ballsy and entertaining (yes a a little cliched but wouldn’t want it any other way). Keep with the show I bulk watched the first 4 eps back to back as couldn’t resist watching, it gets better and better. The music is predominately produced by Timbaland and ties in well with the plotting of the show. This is not a musical of sorts it is dialogue driven as the music use is either in a recording studio, rehearsal/music writing scenes or during gig/concert performances so it does not have the cheesiness that can come with a musical. In the US the music from the show has been released each week on iTunes (much like what Glee did) and a fair few songs have made a impact on the Billboard Urban charts not sure if the same strategy will occur here.

  4. David, I usually agree with your reviews but I watched this pilot and thought it was dreadful. It is an absolutely fantastic idea for a show and it is quite slick in its high-class soap opera format, much like Ringer and Revenge. The premise of the 3 different sons fighting for control of the family company (in very different ways) should allow for plenty of drama, scheming and excellent plotlines. The music really does add an interesting element to the show and its great that its all original compositions. I thought the opening r’n’b number was really beautiful and didn’t get sick of it even though they re-recorded it maybe 4 times.

    My problem with this show is the absurd acting and dialogue and this mostly stems from Cookie’s cartoon character. She uses every ‘black’ stereotypical insult you can think of. Its not funny, realistic, clever or convincing. It’s silly, naïve and…

  5. Originally, Lucious was meant to be played by Wesley Snipes. But when they signed Taraji P Henson, she said that she would only take the part if Terrence played Lucious. Best decision by production yet, the chemistry between them is really good on this show. I have watched the first 7 episodes and the writers did an incredible job, good buy for channel 10. Glad they’ve finally got a promo running.

  6. The presence of Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson makes me think this could be viewed as an unofficial spin-off of the excellent film Hustle & Flow.

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