From the beginning of the pre-Christmas promo blitz launched by Fox, I vowed that I would not watch Empire. Partially due to the fact that I was trying to watch an episode of Sailor Moon on Hulu over the holiday, and the spotty wifi at my parent’s house kept crashing, and every time the show reloaded it took me straight back to mandatory pre-video advertising purgatory running nonstop Empire trailers. But more importantly, the hip-hop producer family drama with strong, credible musical roots (Timbaland serves as a consultant for the series) harkened back to one of my greatest heartbreaks.
The year was 2012. Adele was wringing our feels like a chamois, Kim Kardashian was breaking up with that husband we’ve long forgotten, and Rebecca Black’s “Friday” was still a thing. On Sunday, February 5th, the Giants played the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Apparently the Giants won, which I don’t remember, and Madonna played the halftime show, which I kind of remember. What I really remember was aching for the snoozefest to be over so that Smash would premiere.
Smash, the Broadway primetime soap starring the luminous, unfathomably talented Megan Hilty and a comparably blah Katharine McPhee. The show had the most deafening pre-premiere buzz you can imagine for a network television series, and a cachet of resources usually reserved for premium cable channels. Steven Spielberg executive produced. A full original songbook was promised, with possible live productions. The ensemble cast had Anjelica Huston! Benadette Peters guest-starred! What could go wrong?
At first, nothing. The premiere was almost flawless, setting up a delicious behind-the-scenes storyline that any target demographic potential fan would love: songwriting team Julia and Derek (Debra Messing and Jack Davenport) were looking to write their next big hit—a musical version of Marilyn Monroe’s life. Two hot prospects emerged to audition for the iconic new role: Ivy, played by Hilty, a Broadway-trained actress one role away from her big break and Karen (McPhee), a Midwestern girl fresh off that magical bus to New York City with dreams of stardom. The final duet between the two women, set against a montage of big-hopes audition day prep, is one of the best television scenes of the ‘10s.
Then the second episode happened. And the third. The meltdown of Smash as a production is legendary, with the kind of ego-driven infighting that will maybe inspire a new show a decade or so down the line. Producers clashed, writer and director Theresa Rebeck went rogue, and the story and characters devolved into the kind of implausibility that one expects from, say, the 25th season of The Simpsons. Not a few scant weeks into this Hollywood elite passion project. In lieu of the initially fresh musical numbers, we had to sit through American Idol-level karaoke cheese, like a Times Square rendition of Rihanna’s “Cheers (I’ll Drink to That).” Despite a quick insertion of Uma Thurman and second season cast shakeup, Smash was way too busted to make it past a weak sophomore run.
Which is why Empire felt so eerily similar. Big actors (Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson), production heavyweights (Lee Daniels and Danny Strong), plus the aforementioned musical muscle. Critics were quick to label Empire a hit, driving that month-long buzz up to the January 7th premiere date. Fox was just as eager, renewing Empire for a second season after only two episodes had aired. Links and Tweets started infesting my feeds with Cookie (Henson) GIFs. The trailers full of stilettos, private yachts and elevator fights were the Godiva truffles of eye candy. And I couldn’t watch a night of TV without getting that sample of the second episode “No Apologies” song stuck in my head.
Sure, Empire. We’ve been here before. I’ve been invested, and then I have to watch you go down like the 58th minute Packers. Not this time, network television. I’ll be on my HBO Go if you need me, “not” watching Girls.
Then last week happened. My husband was gone on a work trip and I was marooned in our house, dying of a bad cold. All I could muster was the energy to stick green tea cups into my Keurig and focus my eyes on a glassy-eyed screen. And that’s where the glitter of Empire gold beckoned from Hulu Recommends.
Okay, I sniffled, I can always turn it off. If it sucks, it’s off.
The pilot opened, and this happened.
Five minutes in, we’re gifted the plot on a mahogany boardroom table: retooled King Lear (yep, the eldest son even laughs about the resemblance in a cheeky meta-aside). It may have been done a couple of times before, but that’s one thing Empire isn’t afraid of being, and that’s what it is—a glossy nighttime soap a few parts clips for The Soup, meme and thinkpiece bait, and popcorn addictive. The addictiveness comes chiefly from remarkable performances by Henson as Cookie and Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon, the family’s middle son. The talented actors are gifted with characters worth chewing on. Cookie, the matriarch of the family, spent the last 17 years in jail for crimes that funded the start of Empire Records. Just released from prison, she wastes no time jumping back into the fray to rebuild her lost dreams. She is outspoken and brazen, but not outrageous—there is a blazing intelligence to her character and motivations far more complicated than those traditionally attributed to female anti-heroines (greed, lust, revenge, repeat).
Cookie finds the safest harbor with her son Jamal, an up-and-coming songwriter whose homosexuality has him at odds with his father, Terrence Howard’s Lucious, who doesn’t want a gay son “messing up” his label’s reputation. By helping Jamal step up his music career, Cookie isn’t just lining up for a financial reward. Her torment over abandoning her beloved son to be raised by a homophobic father is clear, and her desire to atone is palpable.
After the available 120 minutes with the Lyon family was up, I was hooked. Not only was I hooked, I was hopeful. Although the parallels with NBC’s failure are apparent, Empire doesn’t appear to be a repeat of Smash. It feels more like its anecdote.
For one thing, Empire is diverse in a way that one-note Smash isn’t in the same stratosphere with. Especially after one of the series’ most notorious low points, a white girl Bollywood number.
Not only is 90% of the cast staffed by black actors, they’re being given strong roles. Roles depicting success and ambition. Even as Hakeem, the youngest son and rap prodigy flirts with Kanye West stereotypes, we see glimmers of complication. With his friends at a club, he muses on the ease at which the cops outside could shoot him. Although he plays the comment off as flippant, it’s impossible not to see how this reality would affect a brilliant kid like Hakeem, not to mention so many of his contemporaries without the luxury and relative security of exceptional wealth.
The female character writing isn’t without their issues—a stale rivalry between Cookie and Lucious’s new wife is unfortunately sown, and there’s a cringe-worthy, derogatory vagina line—but we’re not watching straight tropes puppet back and forth on the screen, as with McPhee and Hilty’s bad/good girl binary.
And in what’s proving to be a stroke of mercy, Empire is not a musical. The characters don’t burst into song on the sidewalk or during board meetings. The characters are musicians, and they play music and sing, but only when it makes sense for them to do so, i.e. they’re in the studio or giving a performance at a club. As a result, only the best songs appear. No need for filler. It feels more authentic and higher quality in each sparse performance, and we are spared from the dreaded ensemble cover. As much as we may adore musicals on theater and film, the television series is not a format that has been kind to the genre. Empire isn’t willing to repeat these mistakes.
By being honest about what it is and allowing talented actors to shine in a reliable story, Empire looks to be a project strong enough to make it into 2016 without falling apart. If it can continue to tackle issues like American racism and LGBT rights in organic, compassionate and authentic ways, it could vault past survival into greatness. At least for now, it has enough panache to cure a jaded heart. But if in three weeks we’re taking a hard left into Bollywood, forget I ever said anything.