Wednesday, March 23, 2016

In praise of...Empire

Terrence Howard is one of those people that's inspired me to embrace the concept of holding multiple opinions about the same thing. He is undeniably a talented, charismatic actor, and when he's on screen you can't help but stare. He's also just as undeniably an abusive bastard, and some of the statements he's made not only about his own history of domestic violence but others are horrifying, full-stop.

With that in mind, I resolved not to watch Empire and successfully avoided it for about a month before I accidentally found myself watching it. Within ten minutes, I was hooked. Believe me, I spend every episode reminding myself that Howard is an awful person- but I still love the show.

The conceit of the first season was that Howard's Lucious Lyon was an updated King Lear who knew he was degrading and had to decide which of his sons- all of whom were somewhat unworthy in his eyes- would be his lucky heir. The added twist: this Lear has a queen (Cookie Lyon as played by the amazing Taraji P. Henson) who spent seventeen years in banishment, also known as a stint in federal prison for drugs. Now she's back, and she's as hungry for power as her ex-husband, with the added fury that Lucious did a less than perfect job raising their three sons: Andre aka Dre, Jamal and Hakeem.

Television's best dysfunctional couple
You've all heard by now about the larger-than-life personalities and plots, the hairpin turns and the talented supporting cast (I would watch Gabourey Sidibe's Becky and Ta'Rhonda Jones' Porsha on their own show), but every week this show brings me to tears. Strip away all of the corporate maneuvering, violence, money and music, and it's a story about how no one can hurt you more than the people you love. 

Lucious has manipulated and lied to everyone on the show, but the flashbacks we've started to see this season from his childhood with a mentally ill mother Leah (Kelly Rowland) are heartbreaking. It's hard not to root for that little boy to survive, but was it necessary to ruin so many other lives in the process?

Cookie's childhood seems to have been only a little more functional, as evidenced by her sister Carol and cousin Bunkie's involvement in the drug world. (That her sister Candace (Vivica A. Fox) is making such a show of respectability seems almost more disturbing.) Still, Cookie's a fighter, and anyone who could survive seventeen years in prison separated from her three young children and then come back ready to fight for her share of the company she founded is someone you want on your team. If I had to put my money on Lucious or Cookie in a fight, Cookie would get all of it. And Lucious and Cookie fight a lot...when they're not protecting each other from treacherous lovers and business partners or taking a trip down memory lane in the bedroom. 

Of everyone on the canvas, it's Dre (Trai Byers) that breaks my heart pretty much every episode. The oldest son, Dre was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder as a young adult, but he's been sketchy at best about treating it, in large part because his father is reluctant to acknowledge it. His wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) has done her turns as a manipulative Lady Macbeth, but she's proven that her marriage to Dre is more important than taking control of Empire. Dre, who's not musically talented like his younger brothers, burns that he's most likely to be passed over in spite of his MBA. He's also ingrained covering for his father into his DNA, not only for Bunkie's murder, but going as far back as hiding guns for his father in his toys as a little boy. Dre feels the sting of his father's capricious rejections more keenly than his brothers, but he has no idea that Lucious sees his mother when he sees his son. 

The new Macbeths?
Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the middle child, is easily the "Cordelia" of the children. In some ways he combines the best qualities of both of his parents and his musical talent is obvious. The only keeping him from getting his father's unqualified stamp of approval is that he's gay. Lucious went so far as to marry him off to a young singer (Raven-Symone), then slept with her himself when she was miserable in the marriage. By the time Jamal was older, Lucious demanded that Jamal keep his sexuality under wraps if he wanted to succeed him. Jamal refused and sought his mother's guidance, eventually winning his father's grudging respect.

Standing up to Lucious was one thing. Will Jamal be able to make sure he doesn't turn into him?
Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), the youngest son, understandably had the greatest "mommy issues" as Cookie was sent away when he was a toddler. If Jamal's style is smooth and soulful, Hakeem's is edgy and angry. In spite of his outbursts against his family, deep down he's tenderhearted, and genuinely in love with the older Camilla (Naomi Campbell). Lucious' efforts to separate the two have come back to bite him hard, as Camilla and her wife (!) Mimi (Marisa Tomei) engineered a hostile takeover of Empire- and then turned it over to Hakeem.

For Hakeem, the line between proving himself to his father and destroying him is surprisingly thin
So what makes me choke up most? When these three come together to support each other, no matter how much they've hurt each other.

All they've ever had
This is just scratching the surface; I don't have space to go into Lucious' vengeful ex-fiancee Anika (Grace Gealey), the murder of Lucious' long-time advisor Vernon by Rhonda, Lucious' stint in prison or Cookie's new venture, Dynasty. And how awesome is the exploration of Latina singers this season? I clapped my hands and squealed when Laura (Jamila Vasquez) debuted with Linda Ronstadt's "Lago Azul".

The real reason I started watching Empire? It felt like I was coming home as I watched a show in which the cast wasn't predominantly white. I'm not African American, and it's true that there haven't been a lot of Asian American characters on this show, but I'm not the only person I know who's hungry to see a show that reflects the reality many Americans live in. While I don't live in the world of music production and it's clear that these characters are bigger than life, there's something refreshing about seeing a big deal soap opera (and that's what it is) with a diverse cast. 

May the backstabbing and heartbreak continue.

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