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Fox's Empire provides an all too rare chance for a predominantly black cast to bring on the drama


Into the Lyons den with the fractious family of Empire. Fox photo

Premiering: Wednesday, Jan. 7th at 8 p.m. (central) on Fox
Starring: Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett, Trai Byers, Bryshere Gray, Kaitlin Doubleday, Gabourey Sidibe, Malik Yorba, Grace Gealey
Produced by: Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brian Grazer, Ilene Chaiken, Francie Calfo

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Never mind all the machinations and deceptions involved in orchestrating the next big hit record on Empire.

What fourth place Fox really needs is the next big hit TV series after a dismal fall brightened only by the solid performance of Gotham. So it’s poured on the promotion for this Lee Daniels-created saga of a very fractured family warring within and without Empire Entertainment. It premieres on Wednesday, Jan. 7th following the Season 14 launch of the faded but still fairly potent American Idol.

Daniels, best known as the director of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, may have out-Shonda’d ABC’s Shonda Rhimes (Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) in terms of putting together an over-the-top, but immersive melodrama with black characters calling the shots. Terrence Howard is the top of the marquee star as steely Empire CEO Lucious Lyon. But Taraji P. Henson butters the bread as his very showy ex-wife Cookie, who’s out to get what’s rightfully hers after a 17-year stint in the slammer.

Henson’s Cookie is a hoot and certainly a holler, speaking her mind via a heavy smattering of “bitch.” As in, “It was my 400 thousand dollars that started this bitch (meaning Empire).” Or, “You messin’ with the wrong bitch, Lucious. I know things.”

Cookie talks with a swagger, walks with a swagger and lights up every scene she’s in. Howard’s Lucious, also fond of dropping the b-word, has all he can do to keep in stride with her. But he scores early on by being deliciously dismissive of yet another state dinner invitation from the President. “Tell Barack yes,” he says. “But this is the last one for the next few months.”

Lucious and Cookie have three sons, two of them musically talented and the oldest one all business. Lucious, who’s secretly terminally ill, pits his offspring against each other in a battle to eventually run the company. “I will start grooming someone soon,” he says. “I need one of you Negroes to man up and lead it.”

Andre (Trai Byers) figures he’s behind the old man’s 8-ball because he can’t carry a tune. But his willful white wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), urges him to do whatever it takes to become Empire’s kingpin.

Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) has singing and composing talent to burn but recoils at the idea of stardom. He’s also gay, which his father can’t tolerate. In a painful, sepia-toned flashback scene, an enraged Lucious stuffs his little son into a garbage can after seeing him wearing a woman’s scarf during Christmas.

Young gun son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) has an affinity for rap and the talent to pull it off. But his chief objective is partying. “You wastin’ yo talents on bitches and booze,” says Dad, who otherwise doesn’t mind Hakeem referring to his mom as “a psychotic animal.”

Empire also has ample music, most of it very listenable even if former Idol judge Randy Jackson might term an opening performance a “little pitchy.” On the other hand, Jamal and Hakeem both could likely cruise to the Idol finals on the strengths of their singing voices and stage presences.

Daniels, probably not coincidentally, also works in a reference to his signature movie. “He treats me like I’m the butler,” a gofer tells Cookie.

The aforementioned flashback scenes, which date back at least 17 years, are hindered by the fact that both Lucious and Cookie look barely a day younger. But youthifying an actor or actress is far more difficult than aging them. And at least the sons are all played by other kid actors.

Empire struts its stuff with complete confidence in the material at hand. It still brims with vitality when the suds overflow, demanding and getting a viewer’s attention. Nuance isn’t entirely missing, but this is a series that’s far more like Dynasty than Downton Abbey. The tart but rarefied observations of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess Violet give way to Cookie barking, “Don’t you ‘baby’ me, you two-faced bastard!”

It’s been a very long time since a drama series with a predominantly black cast has emerged as a bonafide ratings hit. Actually, let’s amend that. It’s never happened on the Big Four broadcast networks, which rarely even try to mount such a show. The premium cable network Showtime kept Soul Food on the air for 74 episodes, which stands as the current record for longevity.

Empire, its flaws notwithstanding, looks as though it has the potential to be a mainstream success. It roars into view and keeps everything humming throughout its all-important first episode. Here’s hoping it lasts long enough to prompt an inevitable debate over the images it presents of its black characters. In this case that would be unprecedented progress -- plus a collective first for broadcast network television.


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