Snark Tank; Recap

Dynasty and The Sopranos Walk Into a Bar and Get Their Glee On: Why Empire is TV's Hottest Show

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Snark Tank is where we recap episodes of TV. This Empire recap is for the series premiere.
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New drama Empire is killing it in the ratings. I mean killing it, in a way that is unprecedented in modern television. The show first shocked the network by outdrawing its lead-in, the increasingly moribund American Idol. It then became the rare show that actually built on its pilot by increasing total viewers in its second episode. We have now seen five episodes and the ratings have risen for five consecutive weeks. This marks the first time a TV show has shown ratings growth in its first five outings since 1991. So Empire has smashed a record going back 23 years. Since the ratings system was revised in 1991, it’s highly likely that the record goes back even longer. Think of the shows that have come and gone since 1991 were considered huge critical and commercial hits. Now think about the fact Empire has outpaced every one of them in a TV era where there is greater competition than ever before. And the series has done all this on less than stellar promotion from parent network Fox.

Why has this show connected with viewers? Well, just consider all the ways we are trying to describe what this show is about:

Empire is Black Dynasty.

Empire is Dynasty Meets The Sopranos.

Empire is Game of Thrones set in the music industry.

Empire is King Lear mixed with Lion in Winter.

Empire is a mashup of Glee and Nashville if both shows were good.

There’s a reason this show has inspired so many descriptions. Because there is nothing else like it on television right now. And because it rocks. It’s a combination of old school soap opera with new school music sensibility, headlined by actors at the top of their game. It also happens to fill a huge gap in TV programming, which is divided on the drama side into police procedurals, superhero shows and political thriller programs (and which have pretty significant overlap with each other).

The pilot opens by introducing us to Lyon family patriarch Lucious Lyon: a superstar rapper who runs his own record label, Empire Records. Lucious is suddenly diagnosed with ALS, a secret he keeps to himself. But now that he knows his life has an expiration date, Lucious announces to his three sons that one of them will be chosen to run Empire.

The three sons include Hakeem, the baby, a fledgling rapper with tons of talent and no discipline. He’s a chip off the old block and dad’s favorite. Eldest child Jamal is a closeted gay R&B singer with a golden voice but little desire for fame. Middle son Andre is an executive at Empire. He knows business but has no musical talent. He also has a scheming white wife. Scheming white wives are ALWAYS trouble, so we can’t wait to see what trouble this one causes. Lucious knows Andre could run Empire, but he tells Andre that since he’s not an artist, he can’t rep the brand.

Into this King Lear mix comes Cookie Lyon, Lucious’s ex-wife, who is released from prison after 15 years. Cookie took the fall for her husband by going to prison for selling drugs. The $100,000 in drug money she made for the family formed the nucleus of the record company. Now that she is out, Cookie is going to get hers and she’s not afraid to say it! The incomparable Taraji P. Henson steals the show with this set-fire-to-the-rain performance. You can’t take your eyes off her as she reunites with her family and tries to make sense of the House That Cookie Built.

Oh, and did I mention that the company is on the verge of going public? Yassssss! Raise those stakes!

Cookie’s relationship with her sons is the inverse of her ex-husband’s. She believes in Jamal’s talent and wants him to be a star. She’s also more or less leading the hood chapter of P-Flag because she loves her gay son and has protected him his entire life. There’s a disturbing flashback where Lucious becomes enraged because little boy Jamal has put on his mom’s high heels in front of Lucious’s friends. He carries his son outside and literally puts him in the trash. Subtle? Perhaps not, but as a storytelling device it works. Dad does not appreciate Jamal living with his boyfriend and threatens to withdraw his financial support.

Cookie’s relationship with Hakeem is more troubled. She was in prison before her youngest son really got the chance to know her. It takes Cookie no time at all to realize he is a knucklehead and she is not going to put up with his arrogant ass. Which is another way of saying there is a scene where Cookie beats Hakeem with a broomstick.

Cookie wants to run the A&R Department, but that job has already been filled by Lucious’s much younger hot wife. When Lucious refuses to give her the job, Cookie is stumped. She sees how Lucious has treated some of their old friends, including bestie Bunky, and it troubles her.

Andre is not about to let go of Empire without a fight. Rhonda the scheming white wife tells him to pit his two brothers against each other, so Andre visits Cookie and encourages her to manage Jamal’s career. That gives Cookie the bright idea of storming into a board meeting, wearing a giant fur coat, and demanding to have control over Jamal’s career in exchange for signing a document swearing she will never tell the feds that Empire was founded with drug money.

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This scene is reminiscent of shows raging from Young and the Restless to Dynasty. Boardroom intrigue has always been at the forefront of the best daytime and nighttime soaps. It can’t all be about who is shipping whom – for the stakes to feel real and for tension to rise, there needs to be another structure. When soaps work well they are writing broader story lines.
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There is a lot of substance to the pilot. I was surprised that this show aimed for something more elevated than campy soap. Although to be honest, there is room for campy soap on television, and the desire to watch it is part of the reason why Empire has made such a huge impression on so many people.

The pilot ends with the show’s first big cliffhanger. Bunky has a major gambling problem that had him in huge debt to the biggest bookie on the Eastern seaboard. Bunkie wants Lucious to bail him out of his trouble, to the tune of $3 million dollars, lest the bad guys come after Lucious. Lucious, channeling his inner Tony Soprano, decides to just take Bunky out himself, shooting him in the back while Bunky hangs at the waterfront. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to write a pilot.

Alex is a lawyer and opinionated.

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