Posts Tagged ‘empire’
The phrase “midseason finale” is television’s most egregious neologism. Essentially marketing-speak for “the last episode of the year before we take a few weeks off around the holidays, because we’re not just airing the whole season in a row the way cable shows do,” it carries with it an oxymoronic promise of finality. But this week’s “Empire” is the rare (sigh) midseason finale that lives up to the moniker. An effective wrap-up of a half season’s worth of story lines, it sets up the show to start anew next year, bigger and better.
I’m pleased to say Empire appears to have sidestepped the soap doldrums with its last few episodes; I reviewed this week’s, the last of the year, for the New York Times.
Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times and it’s a pattern: On the strength of the third excellent “Empire” episode in a row, it’s now safe to declare the show on a hot streak.
You might want to sit down before you read this oh-so-shocking revelation: When “Empire” put Cookie Lyon at the center of an episode, it got the best episode of its third season so far. Largely pushing Lucious and the constant conflicts he engenders between his sons to the side, this week’s focus was squarely on the queen as she attempted to bring her scatterbrained family together to impress the family of her once-again boyfriend, the New York City mayoral candidate Angelo DuBois. Taraji P. Henson’s unerring ability to find the core of Cookie’s every interaction and mine it for all it’s worth is the show’s greatest renewable resource.
As its initial installments this season have made plain, Fox’s hit show “Empire” has been losing a two-front war. On a meta level, can a show that draws much of its heat from tapping the pop-cultural and political zeitgeist keep pace with the chaos of 2016? And in terms of plot, can it keep the soap suds bubbling by simply pitting the members of the Lyon family against each other — and against Lucious, in particular — again and again?
So far, notwithstanding its persistently strong performances (and ratings), the answer to both questions has been no.
Until this week. Like the cold shower that jolts the troubled son Jamal back to consciousness after he pops one too many pain pills, Episode 6 is a welcome shock to the show’s system. It centers on a cybersecurity story line that’s all too resonant with real-life events. And in the person of the hack’s surprising architect, the story line offers a way out of the endless cycle of alignment and realignment among the sparring Lyons, presenting Lucious with a worthy adversary for what may be the first time in the show’s history.
“Fighting is your family’s way of life,” Councilman Angelo Dubois tells Cookie Lyon. “It’s like it’s in your blood.” Normally a statement like this would be considered an insult. Angelo, however, means it as a heartfelt insight, if not an outright compliment. After witnessing the latest public throw-down involving Cookie’s kin, he’s become enlightened about her needs: He’s going to fight on her behalf just as ferociously as the members of her family fight among themselves.
The councilman’s attempt to make virtue out of vice serves as a neat little mission statement for this week’s episode. As the still-young third season of “Empire” has made abundantly clear, the Lyons are locked in an endless cycle of conflict, with various members of the family forging and breaking alliances as readily as Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia do in the George Orwell novel “1984.” (You practically need a flowchart to keep track of Hakeem’s allegiances in this episode alone, for example.) True, Lucious Lyon is nearly always the source of that conflict, and all that pot-stirring has rendered his character inert. But he’s obviously not going anywhere. So if “Empire” is to remain at the pinnacle of prime-time soap, it has to keep the fighting fresh and vital.
But that’s just it: Soul feels in short supply on “Empire” these days. The performances remain engaging — Taraji P. Henson’s star as Cookie grows brighter with each episode, and Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray continue to do warm and nuanced work as Jamal and Hakeem, the family’s reluctant Cain and Abel — and individual scenes can be a lot of fun. But how many times can we watch the same five characters argue over the same set of issues? If any of the alignments lasted for longer than a few episodes at a time — if, say, Hakeem spent most of the season as a peacenik before snapping instead of making the reversal in the space of a couple of commercial breaks — the battles might feel worth waging.
As it stands, “Empire” is full of sound and fury; and while it’s probably taking it too far to paraphrase Shakespeare, the show’s patron saint, and say that the show signifies nothing, it is hard to hear a heartbeat above all the noise.
The most striking thing so far about Season 3 of “Empire” is just how insufferable Lucious has become, not just to Cookie but to everyone else. In this episode he shows up at Tiana’s performance solely to bust the chops of his family. First he goes after Cookie for dating Angelo. Seconds later he taunts Jamal for falling for a ruse Lucious concocted involving Freda Gatz. Is there a single character on the show who wouldn’t be better off if Lucious were dead? The “anti” in his antiheroic persona has been cranked up too high for story lines involving him to work; you know he’ll undermine his family to get what he wants every time, which makes him pretty uninteresting.
Life meets art in an vastly more spectacular fashion when Cookie makes tries to coax her son Jamal, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, back into recording and performing. to that end, she books him a duet with a pop diva named Kitty, who bears an uncanny resemblance in real life to Mariah Carey, the superstar performer who just so happens to be playing her. (It’s hard to understand why real-world musicians who cameo on this show as musicians with identical looks and sounds don’t simply play themselves, but I’m sure Mimi knows best.)
Carey is a multimedia extravaganza in and of herself: Her character need only extend her hands and beefy assistants help her up and down the stage, and her outfits play more games of peekaboo than an overstimulated one-year-old. But when Kitty and Jamal finally get together in the recording booth, their collaboration (enabled though it may have been by all the pain pills he’s popping to get him past his anxiety) is a delight. “I mean, I’m surprised,” says an awe-struck Lucious, who was convinced the kid would tank his big chance, “but happy.” It’s a rare moment of unguarded sincerity and pride from the notoriously narcissistic mogul.
The pop, the pulp and the politics of “Empire” are often so explosive they might be expected to send the show flying in a million different directions. Episodes like this week’s, however, go a long way toward explaining why that’s never happened: Quiet scenes involving the three Lyon sons, like the scotch-fueled exchange that appears near the end of the hour, frequently serve as the invisible thread that holds the whole thing together.
In the exchange, equal parts rueful and playful, Hakeem, Jamal and Andre all face serious burdens. Jamal has finally accepted that he has PTSD, and that it’s preventing him from performing. Andre is mourning the death of his wife, Rhonda, and battling the bipolar disorder he fears he can’t successfully treat without her help. Hakeem has a newborn daughter, but the family’s byzantine interpersonal politics and his own reluctance to settle down have stopped him from stepping up as her father.
With Andre’s smiling but steely encouragement behind them — a far cry from his wild-eyed, hallucinatory antics earlier in the episode, and a better fit for actor Trai Byers’s natural Gary Cooper demeanor — the three young men agree to face their demons head-on. Together, they toast to Hakeem’s daughter, but not before cracking wise about their seemingly never-ending bad-luck streak.
“Man, everybody messed up,” Hakeem says, attempting to offer big-picture perspective.
“Ain’t nobody messed up as the Lyon brothers, I’m sorry,” Jamal jokes in response.
Scenes like this one showcase the easy fraternal interplay between Mr. Byers and his fellow actors Jussie Smollett (Jamal) and Bryshere Y. Gray (Hakeem). These guys sound and act like brothers do, and the warmth that radiates from them when they’re getting along earns this soapy show substantial good will every time.
I got to write about one of my favorite aspects of Empire in my review of this week’s episode for the New York Times. It speaks to the show’s approach that this ep could include one of the happiest moments in the whole series — a half-dressed Taraji P. Henson opening her bedroom door to find Biz Markie performing “Just a Friend” live in her living room — and one of its grimmest — an utterly bleak and realistic portrayal of racial profiling by the NYPD.
“Empire” wasn’t built in a day — it was built one jaw-dropping, Twitter-ready moment at a time. Fox’s blockbuster drama about the Shakespearean dynamics between a family of performers, producers and businesspeople at the pinnacle of a hip-hop record label is, or was, simply very good at being a ritzy prime-time soap opera. It moved its many story lines along at breakneck speed, careening through multiple shocks and twists each episode with little of the plot-prolonging wheel-spinning endemic to the genre. For an instructive comparison, viewers should watch not just any entertaining daytime soap, but even a relatively sharp and setting-specific nighttime serial like “Gossip Girl”; the ruthless efficiency of “Empire” is unparalleled. And from corpses in cars to main characters behind bars, it always knew how to end an hour, a stretch of episodes or an entire season on a strong note.
Then suddenly, last season, things went sour. The decision to stretch the smash hit’s second outing to a relatively lengthy 18 episodes from 12 necessitated a midseason break, after which the show returned feeling, for the first time, out of step with the musical and political moment. While the series had tackled issues as pressing and powerful as the Black Lives Matter movement with both genuine passion and thoughtful humility about entertainment’s role in it all, the presidential primaries and the rise of Donald J. Trump had passed it by. Meanwhile, the soundtrack’s trademark use of confessional lyrics to reflect the characters’ “real” desires and dilemmas were eclipsed in the real world by Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” a visual album that blended diaristic candidness with barely veiled political fury more deftly than Hakeem and Jamal could ever do.
But those events were, of course, beyond the show’s ability to control. Its decision to bog itself down in the hoariest soap clichés — pregnant women getting pushed down staircases, long-lost family members materializing out of the ether — was a self-inflicted wound.
Ditto the second season finale’s sudden shutdown of long-running plotlines and potential stunners: Annika gets grabbed by the feds but tells Lucious immediately rather than serving as a secret snitch for any length of time; Jamal gets shot by his friend Freda Gatz when she tries to assassinate his father, but heals offscreen; Lucious’s mentally ill mother resurfaces in front of the paparazzi but is pulled away before she can damage his reputation, also offscreen. The ostensibly climactic wedding between Hakeem and his girlfriend and collaborator was disrupted by a character we’d never even heard of until that episode (Xzibit’s vengeful Lucious associate Shyne, who returns this season). By the time Rhonda and Annika took that plunge over the balcony, leaving us with the kind of “someone died … tune in next season to find out who!” cliffhanger that drove viewers of “The Walking Dead” to distraction this year, it was hard to know if the show would rise again intact.
I’m covering Empire for the New York Times this season, starting with my review of last night’s season premiere, which I kicked off with this preamble about what the show’s done right and wrong in the past. Here’s hoping the juggernaut rights itself.
Hakeem and Laura had the big wedding planned, and Lucious and Anika wound up tying the knot, but it was Boo Boo Kitty and Rhonda who really took the plunge. And as the pair took their battle over the edge, it wasn’t just Andre who looked on in dismay and disbelief — the audience did too. When the warring women fell off that balcony for Empire‘s season-ending cliffhanger, they took the show’s usually sure-footed storytelling instincts with it. Cutting to black before we could find out which character died was the culmination of a series of decisions that made the series’ final installment till next September — entitled “Past Is Prologue” — a reason to worry about the future.
When the time finally came for someone to take a shot at Lucious Lyon — not with a federal indictment or a backroom bargain, but a bullet — there was no way Empire would half-step it. It went down on an awards-ceremony red carpet in front of hundreds of cameras broadcasting live, shot in slo-mo, with a child of the intended target getting caught in the crossfire. If you could splice the DNA of the final scenes of New Jack City and The Godfather Part III, you’d get something like what last night’s high-octane episode (“Rise by Sin”) delivered.
If you watched last night’s Empire, you got more than an excellent hour of the series — and a rebound from last week’s misfire. As a bonus, you also got pretty decent episodes of Better Call Saul and Hannibal in the bargain. The opening scene depicted Andre Lyon visiting his long-lost grandmother Leah, stashed away in a nursing home for decades by Luciousafter she abused him; the setting, the old-folks humor, the off-kilter camera angles, and the telltale bingo game were all reminiscent of similar sequences in which Bob Odenkirk’s shifty lawyer wooing elderly clients in the Breaking Bad prequel.
Meanwhile, the final minutes, featuring an awkward mother-and-child reunion in which the mentally ill old woman serves her frightened son dessert in the middle of the night (at knifepoint), had a febrile orchestral score and a tense dinner-table psychodrama vibe that evoked the tragically canceled saga of cannibalistic Dr. Lecter. Maybe co-creators/co-writers Lee Daniels & Danny Strong and director Millicent Shelton constructed these parallels deliberately; maybe they didn’t. But the episode — “The Lyon Who Cried Wolf” — proved that this show can do all kinds of things very, very well, even stuff other shows have done well themselves.
If Lemonade exists in the Empire-verse, the Lyon family must be wondering what the fuss is about. An R&B record that uses extremely thinly veiled autobiographical tales of family turmoil as fodder for art? That’s pretty much every song Lucious, Jamal and Hakeem have ever made. Here in the real world, though…well, once you’ve heard Beyoncé’s latest, “Boom Boom Boom Boom” sounds a whole lot less impressive. Now her cathartic confessional album is threatening to do to this series musically what the presidential primary already kinda did to it politically: take a show that depends on feeling utterly of-the-moment and make it feel out of date. Like, can a coffee-house performance of a song called “Good Enough” really compete as a statement of personal freedom with, er, “Freedom”?
Maybe this is an undue burden to place on “More Than Kin,” this week’sEmpire episode. It could just as easily have been a comparison with fallen genius Prince, whom Jamal evokes with his live-band presentation, high falsetto, and “am I straight or gay” sexuality, and that wouldn’t have been fair either. As fun as the music on this show has been, it’s not really meant to go toe-to-toe with the titans of pop, Timbaland production notwithstanding. But – perhaps due to the season’s two-part structure and longer total running time than the short, surprise-hit Season One – the story is getting a bit soft, or more than a bit. That’s when you start noticing problems you might otherwise have overlooked, or never even thought of as a problem at all.
Say what you will about Lucious Lyon, but the man does not lack for chutzpah or cajones. Pushed to the margins of his company by his (seemingly) united family, lined firmly behind youngest son Hakeem, he takes a page from Karl Rove’s political playbook and attacks his kid’s perceived strengths. The fashion line that’s slated to open up a big new market for Empire? Send in a few goons with guns and trucks and make every item of clothing disappear. The Teyana/Laura tour that’s minted not one but two superstars for the Lyon Dynasty sub-imprint? Plant drugs on the tour buses, call the cops, and watch them haul away everything from the lighting rigs to the instruments. The music-streaming service that’s making the record label a major player as well? Sabotage it (with a little help from double-agent eldest son Andre, aiming for the throne himself) so it fails to launch on time. And the kicker? Show up at the big shareholders meeting and personally bring up all these problems. Voila: His son is deposed, leaving him the Emperor once more. That’s the kind of razor-sharp intrigue that made last night’s episode — “Time Shall Unfold” — the best since the show’s spring comeback.
I forgot to link to this in all the Game of Thrones chaos, but I reviewed last week’s Empire for Rolling Stone. The contrast in quality between that one and this week’s is striking.
In the immortal words of Drake, “this ain’t what she meant when she told you to open up more.” Throughout tonight’s episode of Empire (“The Tameness of a Wolf” — what is this, Game of Thrones?), Lucious Lyon has been prepping a music video that will tell his true life story, warts and all. This includes the childhood trauma he’s kept secret: the abuse he suffered at the hands of his bipolar mother, who shot herself in front of him over what she’d done. Proud of her ex’s honesty, Cookie screens a rough cut for her whole family at her birthday party. But instead of bonding them, it blows them apart. Andre explodes, lambasting his dad for hiding his grandmother’s illness — the knowledge of which could have helped him cope with his own. His father responds by calling both grandmother and son embarrassments. When it comes to being a bastard, psychiatry has yet to devise an effective treatment.
It’s musical, it’s political, it’s packed with enough soap-opera outrageousness to make The Young and the Restless look like a work of gritty realism — all of this is true about Empire. But don’t overlook the secret weapon in its entertainment arsenal: It’s funny as hell. Tonight’s episode — “A Rose by Any Other Name” — may be named after a line from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it’s more concerned with comedy than poetry, and all the better for it.
And as always, Cookie Lyon is the Empire’s First Lady of Shade, and this episode contains two of her Best. Insults. Ever. She calls her rival for the throne, Naomi Campbell’s scheming Camilla Marks-Whiteman, “Ol’ Resting Bitchface” — far be it from us to resting-bitchface-shame, but that’s pretty good. Later, when Jamal complains that estranged patriarch Lucious is spreading the word that he’d slept with a woman, costing him the support of the LGBTQ community, the Lyon Queen says “We all know your father is a tampon.” Problematic? Yeah. Hilarious? You bet your ass. When she tells lawyer Thirsty Rawlings, “Stop wearing your granddaddy’s suits,” he gets off relatively easy.
It’s only been four months since Fox’s hit show aired its “fall finale” before breaking for the winter — never mind that it feels more like four years, especially if you’ve been following the presidential primary season. The campaign trail’s thorny issues of race, class, sex, and gender have fueled a soap opera beyond series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s wildest imaginings, which makes the return of this primetime juggernaut feel oddly anticlimactic and understated. Annika pushed a pregnant Rhonda down the stairs? Donald Trump’s threatening riots if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination. Even for this ridiculous country, the outrageous-behavior bar has been raised considerably.
So does tonight’s episode — “Death Will Have His Due” (love, love, love these Empire titles) — stand its ground amid the shifting landscape? More or less, and largely by simply sidestepping hot-button issues entirely. While the show has traditionally drawn tremendous strength and displayed serious chops by sandwiching nuanced, morally and ethically complex social topics between big slices of high-camp cheese, the mid-season premiere keeps the action focused almost entirely on the business and its personal, rather than political, fallout. As such, it’s a fun hour for reuniting with your old friends (and frienemies), but pretty much a placeholder in all other aspects.
The show’s willingness to take on subjects with a degree of difficulty high enough that even so-called “prestige” dramas tend to steer clear remains impressive. Case in point: Following their rousing duet “Powerful” — a Black Lives Matter protest anthem mixed with “Roar”-style empowerment pop — inveterate morning-DJ troublemaker Charlamagne tha God, appearing as himself, bluntly interrogates the pair about their identities. “You black now?” he asks Skye, accusing her of “singing about a race she never really claimed.” Without realizing that he’s struck a nerve, he asks Jamal how people would react if, despite being gay, he suddenly started dating a woman. You can see every possible shade of these sentiments expressed across social media anytime a celebrity’s statements on race or sexuality make the national news. A quickie photoshop of Skye with “a Rachel Dolezal wig” adds even more authentic viral-politics flavor to the mix.
All of this was in service of last week’s shocking smooch — maybe the single soapiest moment in the show’s history, at least until that staircase tumble tonight. The series could have coasted off the sensationalism of that moment for as long as it wanted; instead, it choose to dig into the sociopolitical subtext. (Showrunner mindreading attempts are always ill-advised, but it’s not tough to imagine it’s because this shit matters to them.) Not that any of it felt like getting lectured, of course. It wouldn’t be Empireif even sensitive topics weren’t turned into “oh shit!” moments, whether that’s the shock of Charlamagne’s Q&A or the heartbreaking bigotry ofLucious when, with tears of joy in his eyes, he tells Jamal, “She fixed you!”
All the great shows ask big questions. Mad Men made us think “Can people really change?” The Wire wondered “Can the system be saved?” And tonight, Empire asked “Is Alicia Keys talented and gorgeous enough to convert a gay dude?” According to Fox’s smash-hit soap, the answer is yes! The series has already had a wild second season, but this week’s installment — “Sinned Against” — was the daffiest hour to date…and it was sealed with a kiss.
Then there’s the rap battle itself. To be honest, Hakeem’s defeat of Freda felt like something of a mercy killing, since the young MC’s storyline was a rare case of a plot element on Empire that never quite worked. Granted, the character was supposed to seem ill at ease in the Lyons’ high-powered world, but that out-of-place vibe affected how it felt to watch her as well. Compared to her convincingly sullen demeanor and angry outbursts, the idea that she had a take-on-the-world hunger to rival that of Lucious and his family never came across on screen. She always looked like someone who’d be much happier just battling on the streets where the mogul found her.