TV Recap: Empire, Series Premiere

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Empire Plot Summary:

A hip-hop superstar turned record mogul Lucius Lyon (Terrence Howard) is diagnosed with ALS and is working to secure the future of his company, Empire. This includes “motivating” his three sons: brash future hip hop star Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), shunned gay songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and the money-obsessed and mentally unbalanced Andre (Trai Byers) to grab the brass ring and lead the company. However, Lucius’ baby mama/partner Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) throws a wrench in the works when she is released from jail halfway through her 30-year sentence and demands she gets what’s she’s owed.

Empire is offensive in every aspect. It’s so offensive, it’s hard to know where to begin with the criticisms. It’s actually frustrating to try and structure a review around a show that has little to no structure to it, so let’s break down five things are terrible about this Lee Daniels-created musical drama…and trust us limiting it to just five things was hard enough.

Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX
Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX

1. It’s Actually Offensive: One of the only intriguing plot lines in Empire is the trials and tribulations of Jamal, the gay son of Lucius and Cookie. Jussie Smollett gives the best performance in the series, portraying Jamal (or ‘Mal as he’s often referred to) as a nice, genuine, talented young gay man who is suffering from the lack of fatherly love. However, the show treats him terribly, which makes sense in the context of the show, but they seem to really want to hammer the point home. He is constantly referred to as a “sissy.” Kinda juvenile and silly right? Well, you gotta figure it’s a cover up for the dreaded “f” word, right? WRONG. He is actually referred to as a “f*ggot”…BY HIS OWN MOTHER. Come on FOX, are we seriously going to let this happen? It’s rather crass and insensitive to use a word like that. No, it’s not — it’s hateful. Let’s not get it twisted, Empire is not The Wire. There’s no gritty realism here. This is a high gloss network show that has shitty musical numbers randomly written into it. Using this word is just utter bullshit. What makes matters worse is that the character who refers to Jamal with this word…is his MOTHER. This leads me into my second point.

2. It’s Wildly Inconsistent: Jamal’s mother, Cookie (Henson), in a flashback scene admits to her son that she knows he’s “different” (read: gay) but she always, always “has his back.” Does she really? Multiple times throughout the episode Cookie demeans her son because of his sexuality. She calls him a queen, a sissy, refers to him as a “her” and “she,” she belittles his boyfriend and then calls him the “f” word. This really makes no sense whatsoever. Shouldn’t someone who has your back…actually have your back? Also, we see flashbacks of Lucius literally throwing Jamal in the garbage because Jamal entered a family party in high heels and a scarf (this is one of the most painful scenes to watch). Cookie comes to her son’s aid, screaming and fighting Lucius to leave her boy alone. But yeah, she can still call him the most offensive gay slur in the book.

Also, how can Henson’s character, who has been locked up for nearly 20 years, manage any one of Empire’s (the label’s) artists. She’s been locked up! She kinda missed the entire Internet thing, social media, Friendster, smartphones…when she was on the outside it was all about hustling tapes and record music on reel-to-reel. So unless prison had a social media and music management courses or they were allowed ample access to the Internet, this woman has no idea how to promote/manage an artist in today’s music industry. But hey, what do I know?

This is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are inconsistencies all over the place. Plot holes, even in the premiere, are a football field wide. The show is really relying on sex, sizzle and its veteran cast to overcome any narrative deficiencies. But that leads to the third issue…

Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX
Photo Credit: Michael Lavine/FOX

3. Telenovelas Have Better Acting: Empire sports three Oscar nominees – Howard, Henson and Gabourey Sibide. And they’re all terrible. Howard, whose hair changes in every scene, plays a more boring version of every Terrence Howard role ever. The man only knows how to act one way. Henson, who’s usually amazing, chews scenery with unnecessary camp. It’s confusing because this Taraji P., guys. She has turned more chicken shit into chicken salad in her career. She got an Oscar nom for taking a weak role in Benjamin Button and making it one of the most emotional and crowd-friendly parts of the film. Hell, she was even a sympathetic character in the damn Karate Kid remake. Here, it’s like she’s overcompensating for the entire show. Sibide really doesn’t do much outside of clap. Seriously, her scenes are mainly just clapping. The rest of the cast outside of Jussie Smollet, are all pretty awful. They play every role to the hilt of its caricature. Not one of them has soul, depth, emotion or motives. They just wade through a sea of awful writing and equally inept direction.

4. Did They Hire an Intern for Sound Mixing? Since this is a show that has multiple musical scenes in it you’d think they would hire a competent person to mix the sound. There are constant lapses in the dubbing – we’re talking bad 70s kung fu film dubbing mistakes here. Also, the overdubs are crazy obvious (there seems to have been a lot more swearing in this series in original cuts) and make this high budget series look amateurish at best.

5. This Needed to be on HBO: For this show to work you need the creative freedom to allow foul language, explicit sexuality and raw violence. Empire needs to be told as Shakespeare in a hip-hop world. As one character stated – this needs to be King Lear. With the gloves taken off Empire could be something special, but instead it’s a messy, offensive, toothless drama that’ll get scrap heaped by the end of the season.

Flat out – Empire is one of the worst shows you’ll watch this year.

Rating: 1 out of 10

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Bill Bodkin is the Owner, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beauty daughter, Sophie. He is beyond excited that Pop-Break will be six years old in 2015 as this site has come a long, long way from the day he launched in it in his bachelor pad at the Jersey Shore. He can be read every Monday for the Happy Mondays Interview Series as well as his weekly reviews on Law & Order: SVU, Mad Men and Hannibal. His goal, once again, is to write 500 stories this year (a goal he accomplished in 2014). He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom
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Bill Bodkin is the owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site's podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites