Review: Empire (Season 1, Episode 1)

You’ve probably heard the hype, FOX’s hugely popular hip-hop melodrama has crossed the pond and now racking up views on E4. Does Michelle Obama’s favourite show live up to the hype? Certainly. Is it everyone’s cup of tea? Probably not.

Empire is bold, brassy and unashamedly melodramatic. So it’s not surprising it’s been compared to the likes of Dallas, Dynasty, Nashville, Revenge and even Shakespeare’s King LearEmpire is a powerful 45 minutes of punchy, exciting drama, with frequent hip-hop interludes. In the first episode alone there’s sex, gratuitous violence, a diagnosis of a fatal illness, and even murder.

Episode one centres around the Lyon family and their patriarch Lucious  played by the oscar-nominated Terrence Howard, a former drug-dealer turned billionaire music mogul. His three sons competing for his empire, and his ex-wife, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P Henson) who’s just been released from a 17 year prison stint.

Created by director Lee Daniels (another Oscar-nominee) the settings and costumes are perfect, and often symbolic of the character’s personality. Costume designer, Rita McGhee does a first-rate job. Cookie, a loud, sassy, brazen character is often in head-to-toe leopard print with earrings that rival Pat Butcher.  The three sons, Hakeem (Bryshere Y Gray), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Andre (Trai Bryers) are very different to one another.  Hakeem, the youngest son, a famous rapper and a stereotype of new money success, dresses in bright, audacious clothing as if he’s in a rap video. In fact, his whole life is like a rap video, bad-mouthing the President (who his Father is on first name terms with), getting drunk several times a week, and sleeping with a myriad of models and popstars. The second son, Jamal, a shy, gay, singer/song-writer, dresses in jeans and t-shirts, and struggles with homophobia from his Father. The eldest son, bi-polar Andre, is business minded and helps his Father run Empire, is rarely seen in anything but a tailor-made suit.

Lucious himself dresses excessively, like a gangster, often in regal colours like purple, yellow and red, embracing his money and power. In the first episode, the record-label boss is diagnosed with ALS (motor neurone disease). This sets the scene for the whole series, three brothers fighting for the Empire: did I mention it was like King Lear? However, Lucious doesn’t tell anyone, other than his assistant, that he’s been diagnosed with a fatal disease, not even Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey) his second wife, and the antithesis of Cookie, an old-money debutante daughter of doctors.

The stand out character is undoubtedly Cookie (Taraji P Henson), a lush and fabulous boss woman who returns from jail to “claim what is her’s” (which is, half of the multi-million dollar Empire). Cookie is the perfect character for the social media generation, full of sassy one-liners. The character is a walking meme.

With catchy musical breaks produced by Timberland, and the exploration of tough themes like mental health, homophobia and race, episode one shows a lot of potential for a series that’s on track to be a cult hit. Despite the money, violence and craziness, at the core, Empire is a story of family and it’s struggles and in-fighting. It’s been praised as a grand strive towards diversity due to a mostly black cast and certainly stands out from other prime time shows. Although, it’s no stranger to controversy and has been criticised as stereotyping African-American families as loud and dysfunctional. But without these noisy, brazen characters, customers and music the melodrama would be lost.

Empire is a fantastic show, and in time likely to thought of among the ranks of Desperate Housewives, True Blood, Scandal and other cult melodramas. However, if you’re not a fan of characters bursting into song and over-the-top theatre then Empire is not for you. Be that as it may, if you enjoyed episode one, it’s only likely to get better. With big name guest stars like Snoop Dog, Mary J Blige, Naomi Campbell, Rita Ora, Gladys Knight, Jennifer Hudson, and  Courtney Love to star, and 23 million viewers tuning into the US final, it’s only up from here.

Empire airs now on Tuesdays at 9pm on E4.

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