Uneasy lies a head that wears a crown, even if the crown is that of the ruler of a music-business “Empire.”
But uneasier still lie the heads of those who would be emperor in Fox’s cliche-ridden but eminently watchable nighttime soap opera premiering Wednesday.
Almost nothing about “Empire,” created by Lee Daniels (“The Butler”), feels original, but just a few minutes into the premiere episode, you’ll stop caring. The show even acknowledges one of its sources when one of the music mogul’s three sons asks, “We ‘King Lear’ now?” after dad announces that Jamal, Andre and Hakeem will have to compete with each other to determine who will inherit the multimillion-dollar empire.
But the three sons of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) aren’t the only ones bidding for control of the business: There’s also Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who’s just been released after a 17-year prison sentence for selling drugs. Mama’s back and mama wants what’s owed to her.
What no one knows, yet, is that Lucious is facing a major health issue, adding a certain degree of urgency to his decision about which of his sons should be his successor.
His sons are as different from each other as they could be, especially to a script writer. The youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), is out of control, headstrong, living in the fast lane and pushing even harder on the gas pedal.
Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the quiet, sensitive middle son with an abundance of artistic talent as a singer/songwriter. He’s also gay, which isn’t always an easy fit in his father’s hyper-macho music world. Lately, he’s been living with a Latino boyfriend named Michael (Rafael de la Fuente).
Andre (Trai Byers), the oldest, is actually carved from yet another Shakespeare play, “Macbeth.” Ruthlessly ambitious though he may be, his wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), is even more cold-blooded and the pair apparently will stop at nothing to gain the business throne.
It takes a while for Henson to make her appearance, but once she does, she becomes the biggest magnet in cast. With her claw-like fake nails and exaggerated wigs, Cookie’s a force to be reckoned with, both by the other characters and the actors who play them.
Truth to tell, that’s bad news for her old “Hustle & Flow” co-star Howard. He’s a good actor, but doesn’t pull off the street-thug-to-musical-mogul thing, especially in flashback scenes in which he’s supposed to look far younger and doesn’t. The character is meant to be tough and scary and Howard isn’t very convincing. If anything, he’s a “Lyon” in winter, which, come to think of it, may suggest another source of inspiration for Daniels.
Cookie is the noisier center of our attention, and her son, Jamal, the quieter, more introspective center. Of the three sons, his arc is most developed. It doesn’t hurt that he’s pretty easy on the eyes and a terrific singer. Once Cookie decides to mentor her son toward a music career, she is declaring open war with her ex-husband for control of the company and, for that matter, the family.
Unlike Lucious, Cookie is not only fine with Jamal’s sexuality, she knew he was going to grow up gay from the time he was an infant: “You different, OK? It’s something Mama knows,” she tells him in a flashback. Now just out of prison, she walks into Jamal’s apartment and snaps, “For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place.”
The show is graced by several strong performances, especially by Henson and Smollett. The roles of the other two sons aren’t as fleshed out in the first episode, but once they are, both Byers and Gray seem more than capable of playing them well. The show has a terrific supporting cast in Gabourey Sidibe as Lucious’ loyal assistant, and Malik Yoba as Lucious’ boyhood friend and longtime ally in the company.
One of the series’ major assets is unseen but heard, and to great advantage at that: Timbaland, who serves as both songwriter and music director. Even if the cliches actually bother viewers (which is unlikely), the music is legit and hot. There’s great hip-hop one minute and neo-soul the next. Like the music in “Glee,” Timbaland’s music is anything but incidental to the considerable appeal of “Empire.”
Great TV? No, but “Empire” looks like great fun, and that’s more than good enough.