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FOX’s “Empire” Premiere is Not Great But “Good Enough;” Review

The premiere of FOX’s hotly anticipated drama “Empire” is not a great episode of television. Victimized by unimaginative, predictable storytelling, awkward and occasionally inorganic character development, comedic absences of nuance and subtlety and ineffective pacing, the opening hour offers no promise of disruption. It offers no reason to believe that FOX has wholly replicated the elegance, depth and swagger of an elite cable drama in its broadcast network setting.

And yet for as easy as “Empire” is to criticize from a technical standpoint, it manages to strip viewers of that inclination. From start to finish and through its best and worst moments, “Empire” demonstrates an immense allure that will immerse viewers in the universe and keep them excited about the show’s positives rather than distracted by its negatives.

Pivotal to that achievement is the show’s creation of an immediate–and immediately enthralling–atmosphere.

On paper, the rap world governed by Lucious Lyon’s Empire Entertainment and inhabited by the series’ central characters is utterly without depth. It trades in simplicity, and it demonstrates little ambition to vividly counter viewers’ preexisting notions of the hip-hop world. Issues are raised when necessary for creating conflict (discussion of the African-American community’s conservative stance on homosexuality ties into the narrative) or when needed to establish character context (discussion of how success can detach musicians from the passion and cultural conditions that initially fostered that success), but they are never presented with a motivation to transform. They are shallow statements of context rather than palpable calls for exploration.

But it is because of the show’s simplicity and analytical restraint that it can so effectively create its universe. Instead of dissecting the rap world from an outside-in perspective, “Empire” simply embraces the one it occupies — and can devote the entirety of its premiere to the illustration of that world. The series seeks to give viewers a portrait rather than a commentary and thus serves to create audience engagement rather than contemplation.

By the time the “Empire” premiere fades to black, viewers will understand the rules, the stakes, the players, the passions and the challenges that exist within that universe. They will feel connected to the show, and that connection goes a long way in compensating for shortcomings that would not typically pass critical muster.

Even more important than the atmosphere is the commitment of the two leads. As confident, accomplished, powerful rap mogul Lucious Lyon and his determined, passionate, formerly imprisoned ex-wife Cookie, respectively, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson absolutely ignite the screen. Wholly invested but never short on self-awareness, the actors each possess a magnetic intensity that colors each scene with sincere, resonant emotion and urgency.

Best about their performances is the extent to which they complement each other. Both will rightfully be dubbed scenery chewers, but their characters–and approaches to their characters–differ and thus provide “Empire” with separate, uniquely compelling forces for powering its narrative.

Brash, confident and hot-tempered yet humbled by news that he is suffering from ALS, forcibly reformed by his transformation from hustler, to successful artist, to business powerhouse and jaded by awareness of that transformation, Lucious Lyon is a living conflict. Simultaneously aware that there is a weakness associated with a businessman’s persona yet aware that reacting with anger also reflects weakness, the character possesses a perpetual challenge in his quest to optimally demonstrate strength.

Howard’s performance perfectly captures that challenge. Over-the-top yet never prisoner to emotion, Howard plays Lucious with a cool sizzle. He is in command of every scene but, in a perfect commentary on Lucious’ conflicted positioning, manages to demonstrate the most command when he is at his least loud and overtly forceful.

Henson, on the other hand, completely goes for broke. Not simply content to be the smartest in the room, her Cookie must also be the most overtly powerful. Vulnerability enters the equation not before she acts but after she learns that her strength, passion and confidence are not enough to win every situation.

If a reservation exists in Henson’s forceful performance, it comes from the way she captures Cookie’s philosophical dilemma. Revealed in flashbacks to be the “strong” member of the family she once shared with Lucious, Cookie, in her heart, possesses an admirable combination of motherly instincts and artistic idealism. She always wants to put her family first, and she always wants to believe that the music game can be won through a plethora of determination and natural talent.

It is thanks to acceptance that reality conflicts with her ideal that the more aggressive, combative Cookie emerges. Losing is not an option, and if winning cannot be achieved through reserved, good-natured simplicity, then reservation is not an option. By injecting subtle emotional shifts into her loud performance, Henson captures the spirit of Cookie and proves that there is a method to her over-the-top madness.

For virtually all viewers, the confident, sincere creation of atmosphere and magnetic lead performances will be enough to compensate for the show’s shortcomings. The show is not great on the whole, but insofar as its most prominent elements absolutely are great, viewers will find their entertainment demands satiated.

If they do venture into the world of criticism, however, they will stumble upon several flaws with the first episode of “Empire.”

One of the premiere’s greatest weaknesses–and the one element that almost derails Howard from his superb portrayal of Lucious Lyon–is the inclusion of a criminal element. Insofar as the world of crime is relevant to the Lucious and Cookie backstories and commonly etched into hip-hop culture, ignoring it would not be an option. And, to its credit, it absolutely feels more authentic and worthwhile than the terrible political facet of ABC’s first “Nashville” season.

If used to establish another layer of intrigue and danger within the rap world, the criminal portion would be far more welcome. The pilot episode, however, greatly misfires. An issue related to gambling debt produces a scene in the vein of a bad mob movie parody, and it feels completely flat and out of place. That it is technically being designed to add color to a character is all the more tragic; the cheesy action movie line a character delivers in conjunction with a pivotal “action” scene nearly undermines the character development process.

The simplicity of the core narrative–the aging, ailing Lucious needs to select the heir to his empire–also does a disservice to the premiere. By so notably simplifying the journey, the plotline locks the relevant characters into similarly simplistic boxes.

As the three sons theoretically contending for the Empire crown, Bryshere “Yazz” Gray, Jussie Smollett and Trai Byers find their characters–and portrayals–defined entirely by the constraining needs of the narrative.

Gray’s Hakeem, Lucious’ favorite, is an exceedingly talented rapper but victimized by his immaturity, arrogance and volatility. Unfortunately, Gray is never given an opportunity to truly explore his conflicting traits with any nuance. Depending on the scene, the narrative either calls for him to focus primarily on his talent or primarily on his immaturity, and it undermines any opportunity for a more complex portrayal. That his character’s emotional outbursts are routinely upstaged by Howard’s commanding presence does not help matters.

In Jamal, a gay character more concerned with art than fame and fortune, Smollett receives the meatiest of the sibling roles. His character’s values directly conflict with those of his father, who sees homosexuality as a choice (and the wrong one to make in an intolerant society) and obviously respects the business side of the music business. Unfortunately, Smollett never truly gets to explore the emotions behind either conflict.

The conflict associated with his homosexuality is presented fairly superficially in the present; its most emotional and riveting exploration comes courtesy a flashback to Jamal’s childhood. His stance on art, meanwhile, is reduced to a mere plot device and takes only a minor development to be dismissed (or at least minimized) by the end of the episode.

Other than revealing his exclusive focus on business and utter lack of interest in music, the pilot does little to color Byers’ Andre. Byers reciprocates with a shallow, mechanical performance.

Supporting characters like Lucious’ new flame Anika (Grace Gealey), Andre’s wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), Jamal’s boyfriend Michael (Rafael de la Fuente), Lucious’ assistant Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) and Empire executive Vernon (Malik Yoba) receive minimal focus in the premiere.

Pacing also causes problems for “Empire.” While the episode demonstrates an admirable holistic commitment to patience and avoids the common mistake of introducing too many twists and reveals, it struggles on a more microscopic level. When not flashing too quickly between scenes, “Empire” demonstrates an inability to prioritize dialogue. Scenes will spend far too much time setting the pace and not nearly enough time chronicling more substantive interactions.

Even some of the scenes between standouts Henson and Howard succumb to the erratic pacing.

In the spirit of fellow music business drama “Nashville,” “Empire” integrates original music into the narrative. While presented as actual performances, the show is not averse to using the tunes as backing for character and storyline explorations.

“Good Enough,” a ballad in the sonic vein of Justin Timberlake songs like “Mirrors” and “Cry Me a River,” is, for instance, used to frame the aforementioned flashback to Jamal’s childhood.

While “Good Enough” is the episode’s standout track (and the one with the greatest potential to do damage on iTunes), all of the original numbers are competent. They are not, however, without flaws.

Written and produced by Timbaland, the songs are all credible and catchy but often come across as dated and unimaginative. “Right There,” a collaboration between brothers Hakeem and Jamal that is touted as musical magic, sounds fine but features the caliber of incredibly superficial lyrics that routinely prompts criticism of contemporary hip-hop.

Like the numbers on “Glee,” the songs’ excessive level of production also tends to clash with the on-screen context (they’re supposed to be “live” performances).

Still, when one considers the fact that “Empire” will introduce several, respectable original songs each week, he would be hard-pressed to justify outrage at the show’s musical element.

Not merely relevant to the show’s musical element, that logic is ultimately relevant to the show as a whole. Victimized by some fundamental flaws, “Empire” makes them worse with some misfires in execution. But when one considers the totality of the effort–and the flashes of greatness that emerge in the key performances and atmosphere illustration–he simply cannot write off this series. He will certainly not want to turn it off.

Throughout his entire life, Jamal has struggled to convince Lucious he is “Good Enough.” It will take “Empire” only one episode to prove that it is “Good Enough” for its viewers.

FOX’s “Empire” premieres on January 7 at 9PM ET.

Written by Brian Cantor

Brian Cantor is the editor-in-chief for Headline Planet. He has been a leading reporter in the music, movie, television and sporting spaces since 2002.

Brian's reporting has been cited by major websites like BuzzFeed, Billboard, the New Yorker and The Fader -- and shared by celebrities like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj.

Contact Brian at brian.cantor[at]


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