30 April 2015


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The premise is certainly on the money (literally) and given the success of hip-hop impresarios/multi-millionaires like Jay Z, Dr. Dre and Def Jam boss Russell Simmons, long overdue.

Yes it’s that old stalwart of 80s soap Sibling Rivalry rearing its hoary old head, not least when Lucious tells them they basically have to start impressing him, effectively letting them off the leash to turn on each other like three greedy pitbulls.

Bequeathing the company to all three of them would obviously be madness.

‘In order for Empire Entertainment to survive I need one of you negroes to man up and lead it !’ he snarls.

Naturally (for a network TV show) the three young men couldn’t be more different.

Andre is The Businessman, and bi-polar by the way. Jamal is The Singer, and gay. Hakeem is The Bad Boy, and annoyingly reminiscent of a black Dappy.

Just what they need: Only Taraji P Henson as Cookie gives Empire any edge (right)

Where’s the kids’ mom in all this you might say? Good question. She’s in jail, serving a 30-year stretch and she’s called Cookie.

But just as Lucious announces his plans to float Empire on the New York Stock Exchange, Cookie is released. What are the odds eh? On a show like Empire, pretty low. Almost guaranteed in fact.

When Cookie staggers out of the prison gates in the high heels and fur coat that she was arrested in, none of her family is at the prison gates to meet her. None of them even know she is being released, which is handy in a way as it allows each of them to find out about her release in dramatic fashion and, mostly with horror.

She bursts in to the Empire boardroom for example to tell Lucious she wants her share of the company not least because his entire, um, empire was built on the $400, 000 drug money she invested in his dreams of Making It Big before she was locked up.

50% of his fortune? Unsurprisingly Lucious is Not Keen.

Her kids aren’t that pleased to see her either, especially Hakeem who was only one year-old when she went to jail and never visited her or took any of her calls.

‘Everything I did was for you and your brothers,’ she tells him, as if it’s not even the 80s, but the 70s.

‘Do you want a medal, b**ch?’ Hakeem snaps, before finding out that what she wants is ‘some respect’, which she gets by beating him with a handily placed broom.

Evidently not someone to mince her words, Cookie fares little better in finding a warm welcome with her other two sons.

‘Why did you marry that white girl?’ she asks Andre.

Wasted opportunity: Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe (left), who starred in movie, Precious, is sadly denied a leading role in the show

Wasted opportunity: Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe (left), who starred in movie, Precious, is sadly denied a leading role in the show

As for Jamal, Cookie has precious little time for his artistic integrity (refusing to tour or release an album) when he has the talent to be the new Frank Ocean.

So far so clichéd. The sub-Suge Knight storylines were done in Ray Donovan with more pizzazz and realism and Baz Luhrmann did the whole ‘hip hop Shakespeare’ mash-up as long ago as 1996 with Romeo + Juliet.

But director Lee Daniels (the gritty incest film Precious and The Butler) and writer Danny Strong (the first Hunger Games film) aren’t fronting as they say.

Empire is meant to be corny – at least you hope it is with a soundtrack as awful as music producer Timbaland’s, which at times borders on the simplistic sentimental exposition of Glee.

Over the last ten years, American television may have just become renowned for the subtleties of shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire, but Empire is a brazen throwback to the old skool stereotypes and power moves of studio soaps like Falcon Crest, The Colbys, and hopefully eventually Dynasty.

‘We King Lear now?’ Jamal asks when his father tells them that only one of them scoops the pot of gold.

Chuck in some modern ‘Cotton Club’ styling, safe hip-hop video sex and violence, and stereotypical guff about ‘gangster culture’ and ‘Strong Women’ and Daniels and Strong have clearly made sure to tick all the boxes to achieve their main aim: to make Empire a hit.

Move over: Empire became such a smash in the States, audiences soared from 10million for the first episode (on January 7th) to over 17million for the season one finale

Empire became such a smash in the States, audiences soared from 10million for the first episode (on January 7th) to over 17million for the season one finale.

It’s about time there was a mainstream show making so many references to black culture – even if they are all the obvious ones (‘Dr King’, Don King, Halle Berry, and Lucious referring to ‘Barack’ rather than ‘the President).

It’s a shame though to see the likes of Gabourey Sidibe (the formidable star of Precious) denied a leading role.

Strong performances were at a premium thanks to the glossy, glamorous sheen placed over everything.

Terrence Howard as Lucious is so smooth he almost IS the black Blake Carrington and only Taraji P Henson as Cookie gives Empire any edge.

One powerful scene hinted at its potential – as Jamal, Lucious, and Cookie all have memories of Jamal as a little boy dressing up in his mama’s high heels and head-scarf, enraging Lucious so much that his father stormed up from the dinner table, snatched him, and dumped him in the trash can outside. This is the type of material Daniels grew up on – literally: it was a scene gleaned from his own childhood.

Making an impact: Terrence Howard and Bryshere Gray share a scene together 

No one could complain that Empire wasn’t fast moving. By the end of episode one, all of her children had accepted Cookie back into their lives (well sort of).

Andre had conceived an alliance between them to divide and rule over his two rivals/brothers.

Jamal had not only agreed to release a record but let her manage his career – taking on his younger, hipper, brother – but come out as an openly gay artist, much to his father’s consternation, asking Cookie ‘You’re really not ashamed of him?’

Relations between Cookie and Lucious thawed quickly enough for him to agree to a large pay-off and secure a non-disclosure clause in the deal that allowed Empire’s floatation to go ahead. He also found time to bump off the childhood friend/bodyguard who was blackmailing him.

British viewers also have cameos from the likes of Naomi Campbell, Snoop Dogg, and Gladys Knight to look forward to.

As for American audiences they are having withdrawals, and waiting for the second series.

It is thought that more black men watched the season one finale than the Superbowl with the Empire audience also including 71% of all African-American women under the age of 50 who watching TV at the time.

Empire might not be Breaking Bad but its importance can already not be under-estimated, particularly if it is the breakthrough for other more creative, nuanced, follow-up shows. If series two continues its impact and popularity, Empire will create an empire of its own.