The year was 2003. It was the year I graduated high school and moved to Portland. It was also the year that an anticipated box office bomb ended up becoming one of the most successful movies of the burgeoning millennium: Pirates of the Caribbean. No one was expecting a movie based on a theme park ride to be watchable. Disney already had several forgettable ride-crossover flops on their hands (2002’s The Country Bears, 2003’s Haunted Mansion, and this year’s Tomorrowland all carry the terrible curse).
This summer, however, had a shocker. People left the movie theater without demanding refunds. Without Tweeting (wait, how did we express dissatisfaction before Twitter?) hateful things about it. They went and told their friends, “hey, that Pirates movie? It was actually pretty good. You have to see Johnny Depp in it.”
Because the story was kooky and snackable, the loving costars beautiful, but what made the movie memorable was Captain Jack Sparrow.
I know, it’s hard to even talk about Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in 2015, right? But in 2003, he was fresh and different and so, so, so very sexy. His confidence, his weird accent, the side-eye and crooked smile. He was a Queen of Shade and unreliable narrative. He was an antihero when we were starting to get really into those. Between Mr. Big and Don Draper, he was the perfect transitional antihero. I spent twenty precious college dollars buying the DVD so that I could rewind and pause it on his last close-up scene over and over and over again.
(I might have written fanfic. You can never prove it, internet.)
Then another Pirates movie came out. It didn’t make a whole ton of sense, but Jack was back, and for a moment that was good enough. And then another, with the random Keith Richards father cameo and plotlines that made True Detective Season 2’s storyline seem as straightforward as Hop on Pop. Worst of all, they made us all sick to death of Captain Jack. We no longer laughed at the rum being gone. We saw Sparrow milk millions of global box office dollars from a movie we’d liked once. He invaded the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. We had to watch his same shades of bizarro Tim Burton whimsy gone amok in Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Despite no one in the world asking for it, Depp is out there in his Jack Sparrow costume yet again, filming Pirates 5. Because The Lone Ranger and Mortdecai weren’t enough for our broken society to take.
Depp as Jack Sparrow was a good thing. A good thing we cried out for, and Disney force-fed down our throats like so many Homer Simpsons in Hell.
Did you start watching Empire when I told you to, right here, early this year? Even if you didn’t listen to me, you’ve certainly heard by now about Taraji P. Henson’s performance as Cookie Lyon. Cookie hit the zeitgeist in a way that was reminiscent of Jack Sparrow’s premiere twelve years ago. The role represented everything that was different, exciting and vitally important about Empire. She was drop-dead gorgeous in a way we normally don’t see on TV: a middle-aged woman of color, a flawed feminist, a fiercely protective mother and shrewd businesswoman. She said snappy, Tweetable things that Golden Age TV nerds loved to throw around, eternally GIF-able.
Without Cookie, there would be no success for Empire. It would drown in its camp and soap, like a recent season of American Horror Story. The heavy-handed scenes and dialogue would have no effervescence. There would be no generous wink to the audience. She keeps us chattering about what she wore, what she said, how she took down anyone and everything standing in her way. She made us come back to appreciate what else the show had to offer. Representation. Relevance. Without her, we’d miss out on one of the most important television shows in recent entertainment history.
For those first halcyon weeks after Empire’s premiere, Cookie felt like my secret best friend. I’d bring her up in conversation and no one knew who I was talking about. “Oh yeah, I heard that show was actually pretty good, but I haven’t watched it yet.” No one in my circle had seen the outfits, the wigs, the glare.
But word got out (because really, how do you keep Cookie under wraps?), and it was quickly announced that the second season of breakout smash Empire would premiere in fall 2015. The same year the show debuted in the first place. A stable of glittery guest stars were announced: Pitbull! Mariah Carey! Chris Rock! Al Sharpton! Kelly Rowland! We’d be getting double the episodes, and naturally, what the people wanted–more Cookie.
Could Fox ruin one of the best characters on any modern screen, giant or small? Was she going to be forced into a parody of herself, a scene-chewing monster stuffed with dialogue too ridiculous to be human? Would she be Jack Sparrowed out of our hearts?
Judging from Wednesday’s Empire premiere, hope glimmers. It flickers at times, but it’s there.
Cookie leads the opening scenes, hosting a Hands Up, Don’t Shoot-nodding rally in support of her jailed husband Lucious. She rattles around a cage in a gorilla costume, gets hit on by Marisa Tomei’s new character, chats with Al Sharpton. It’s disorienting and overstuffed, but eventually ferries us into the plot. Cookie is a strong presence but not a sole one. Her sons Jamal, Hakeem and Andre have shifted into new roles and dynamics in the wake of Lucious’s incarceration. Cookie’s relationship with Anika, a Dynasty-esque romantic rivalry in the first season, has eased into an unsteady truce. Terrence Howard’s Lucious is given ample glowering screen time alongside Chris Rock, the least convincing criminal mastermind of all time. There’s a severed head! Kids getting into the precious wig collection! A lesbian dance party! One of the best Cookie disses of all time!
In the midst of the Empire signature feast, there are threads we want to follow. With the first scene of the season tackling police brutality and the broken American correctional system, it’s clearly signaling the willingness (and necessity) of taking our country’s race issues head-on. Jamal, a favorite character from last season, is being corrupted by power. Lucious may retain his strength, but he isn’t free. Mariah Carey isn’t here yet, and how can we even handle that moment? Will there be more of Marisa Tomei and her Cookie-contrasting Texas Bedazzler wardrobe?
The writers and actors at Empire have shown themselves capable of building something monumental. Depp may be savvy, but Henson has the intuition and talent to keep the character alive for the long haul. She knows when to dig in her acrylic nails and when to hang back and let the story breathe. If the show is able to keep the network’s greed at bay, Cookie will likely become a cultural classic instead of a millennial footnote.