Empire is a hip hop musical drama that premiered on US TV earlier this year. Now, after the end of its first season, the series has finally arrived in the UK on E4. If your ears pricked up at “hip hop musical drama”, this is the show for you.
Terence Howard stars as Lucious Lyon, CEO of Empire Entertainment. An opening studio session sees him push a woman to sing from the heart by reminding her of her dead son. It tells us everything we need to know about the guy. He’s calculating, clever and ruthless to boot. Most importantly, though, he knows how to produce good music.
That’s why he’s so concerned about who will succeed him as the head of Empire, following his diagnosis with a terminal illness. Will it be his favourite son, the talented Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray)? His smarter – and eldest – Andre (Trai Bryers)? Or his middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a prodigy who is snubbed by his dad because of his sexuality and apparent lack of ambition?
Faster than you can say “King Lear”, though, in walks his ex-wife Cookie (a scene-stealing Taraji P. Henson), fresh out of prison, who wants a piece of what’s hers.
It’s a dysfunctional family that EastEnders would be proud of, but Empire manages to feel much bigger than Albert Square, even on the Queen Vic’s loudest karaoke night. That’s partly thanks to the talent behind the camera: the show is created by none other than Lee Daniels, the director of Precious, and co-written with Danny Strong (who also penned Daniels’ The Butler). Daniels shoots events with a gloss and sass that feels more cinematic than televisual, an attitude that is emphasised by the starry cast – keep your eyes peeled for Gabourey Sidibe as Lucious’ assistant and, further down the line, several guest spots from Naomi Campbell.
The magnetic Howard is front and centre, enjoying the chance to tell the board of his company how he grew up dealing drugs and condemning the damage that the web and piracy has done to the music industry. Quick flashbacks to medical sequences drum up sympathy, even as he beats down upon his kids: “Want to spend more time with me?” he snipes at Jamal. “Release another album.”
The music, though, is what really works. Empire isn’t just about it: it knows how to use it. Songs don’t just pop up between scenes; they inform them. Characters unwind by jamming on a piano, only for other characters to express their surprise. Bryshere Y. Gray, best of all, manages to perform a song badly, as Hakeem is forced to rap his father’s words.
Some of the series’ music-driven style doesn’t always pay off. “What I want is some respect,” yells an angry Cookie, only for upbeat music to interrupt and link the moment to the next scene: a bold move, but one that blurs the tone between comic relief and melodrama. While such moments only highlight the vaguely stereotypical nature of the family dynamics, Empire still manages to impress with its debut number: in a world where the majority of TV is still led by white people, Empire’s label as the “black Dynasty” sums up exactly just how welcome it is to see old-fashioned TV tropes centred around black characters. The fact that it’s delivered with such verve and energy holds strong promise for future episodes. A show with its own voice and a toe-tapping soundtrack, if Empire didn’t have you at “hip hop musical drama”, the chances are it soon will.
Season 1 of Empire is available to watch online in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Empire online on pay-per-view VOD?
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox