There is no television show on right now as fiery as Fox's Empire.
Empire lives on the tightrope, each episode as likely to feature murder, federal prosecution, or medical drama as it is the backstabbing nature of the music industry and the wicked romance between the Lyons, Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), which forms the show's heart.
The show snarls and grins with every breath, coiling taut around your fragile attention span to make sure you're not missing the next word, the next character, the next song, or the next twist in the story.
Empire exemplifies how cable prestige dramas have given way to glorious pulp
Empire's blistering rise, along with genre-defining, highly addictive soaps like Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, comes at the tail end of the rise of the cable prestige dramas — Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos — that punctuated what's known as the contemporary "golden age of television." Empire and its kin are pulpier, more daring episode to episode than those shows. But there's a danger of burnout, like Scandal found out these past two seasons.
Yet in all, the effect is enthralling. There's a refreshing sense that Empire and shows like it don't want to be like the series that came before them. Empire and its compatriots aren't afraid to be something different.
The main story of Empire isn't unique. Lucious is coming to terms with his mortality and is forced to leave his mighty kingdom, in this case a music company named Empire Entertainment, to one of his three sons. (The show knows what it's doing. A King Lear joke appears in the pilot.) This is a very simple yarn of a squabble over power, and how with great power comes great responsibility, and so on and so forth. The beauty is in how it tells this oft-told tale.
The show's avatar is Henson's bewitching Cookie Lyon. Cookie is a caustic mix of love and malice, freed from prison and coming to take what's hers (the company) after sacrificing her own freedom so the company might get its start. She's both villain and hero, and with her one-liners, side-eyes, and lack of apologies, she just about struts off with the entire show.
Like Cookie, Empire bathes in excess. The costumes are feather, fur, and saturated color. The dialogue crackles with slang and shade, and the weekly drama of the Empire Entertainment power struggle boils over with Dynasty-esque camp.
And the show is in on its own jokes, making it that much more fun to watch.
Empire is a story about American survival
A central nerve stem guides Empire. This is essentially a show about survival at any cost, even if many in the audience might disagree with how it is achieved. Cookie and Lucious got their start with drug money, and the constant flashbacks and skeletons from their past never let you forget that central fact. But the drugs and the money they garnered are presented as necessary avenues of escape from desperate poverty. The show doesn't gild or mythologize the American dream — it knows that not everyone has a fair shot at it (and, indeed, maybe no one does). Instead, we appreciate when people achieve it.
This becomes more evident in depictions of Cookie's jail time. Cookie is punished, while Lucious parlays those funds into a lucrative business. But, crucially, the show isn't about making the audience want to see Lucious pay for his crimes. Rather, viewers want to see Cookie get the money she deserves.
There are plenty of things in this show that many of us can't relate to: working with producers, creating music, being an artist, being in jail for trafficking narcotics, killing people, being good at dancing, being business owners, running a company, offering an IPO, being in love with someone who might kill you, etc.
But there's something about how Empire depicts and celebrates American endurance, in its poorest pockets, that transcends all of its drama and resonates with anyone who watches. We're all trying to keep our heads above water in some aspect of our lives. Empire may be over the top, but it reflects resilience, the fight for your livelihood, and never letting go, beautifully.
And in so doing, it's subverting current TV trends.
Empire demands to be watched live
We live in an age where we can bend television to our will. Netflix allows us to binge whenever we feel like it, and DVRs allow us flexibility with our favorite shows. These advancements have splintered audiences and the way we watch and discuss television. Everyone is on a different television-viewing path. With many prestige dramas, there's less urgency to watch the show the night of. Watching television today can feel like a largely antisocial experience.
Shonda Rhimes's Scandal challenged this assumption. The show began as a procedural drama but slowly unfurled into a riveting soap. Each episode had some moment that would explode and make loyal viewers gasp and, well, wonder if anyone else was watching. Scandal's success on Twitter has changed the way we quantify ratings.
Empire is built in the same frame and even passed Scandal's live-tweet average. And the second season aims to build atop the first in terms of moments that will cause social media meltdowns. In the first episode alone, there are threats of a hostile takeover, guest appearances from Marisa Tomei and Chris Rock, a murder, a familial betrayal, at least three new songs, and a commentary on race and mass incarceration.
There's a lot — usually involving the fantastic melodramatics of Cookie — swirling in each episode of Empire. If you miss any of it, even if it's a single tart one-liner, you're not part of the conversation. That means live viewing is essential.
The show's cast reflects a changing America
The characters we see on television have never represented what America actually looks like. As a medium, television has been punctuated by a dearth of nonwhite, non-heterosexual characters and a dearth of nonwhite producers, writers, and directors behind the scenes.
In the 2011-'12 season, according to the Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, nonwhite actors and actresses accounted for just 5.1 percent of the lead roles in network comedies and dramas. Empire, with its predominantly black cast and its diverse writers' room, is unique and something that's long overdue.
Empire's success — the show garnered 17.62 million viewers during its season finale — has made it a marvel. But make no mistake, the show's blazing rise isn't the end of any golden age. It's an extension of that ideal to everybody who wasn't a part of its earliest days.
Though television is getting better at diversity, there are still so few shows that feature black actors, writers, and producers like Empire does. But as everyone knows, the easiest way to change television is to be a massive hit everybody else wants to copy. Thus, each ratings win for Empire (or Scandal or Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat) feels like a win for anyone who has never seen himself or herself on television.
Empire's second season reminds us why we love the show
The first season of Empire jammed a series' worth of plots and twists into 12 episodes. In the first three episodes of the second season, the show does not let up. We're dropped back into the Lyons' den, with Cookie plotting yet another coup.
Henson steals these first three episodes, whether through flitting her eyes or whispering a shady cut to Anika, a.k.a. Boo Boo Kitty (Grace Cealey). Cookie is a different, more tempered and calculating woman this season compared with the last. That's understandable, since she's now adapting to life outside of jail.
Her goal is different. It's not just about living — it's about getting what's hers, but by doing her best to follow the rules. The brashness and saltiness that defined her still exists, but that's all bubbling under the surface. There's a sense — and Henson is so good at conveying this — that Cookie's learning to play the game.
The beginning of this second season feels like a bigger show just from the sheer number of different characters whizzing in and out. There's a carousel of guest stars (Marisa Tomei, Chris Rock, Kelly Rowland), guest performers (Pitbull, Swizz Beatz, Becky G.), and cameos.
The plot and backstabbing is at an all-time high too, with the not-a-man but not-yet-a-monster Jamal (Jussie Smollett) sitting at the head of Empire. But all these "big" moments seem to have squeezed away the potential for gems from Porsha (Ta'Rhonda Jones) and Becky (Gabourey Sidibe).
The show's king, Lucious, is a bit more aloof this season. He's always been the character that's easiest to hate, since he holds what Cookie can't have. That's missing from the first episodes with Jamal in charge. Understandably, Cookie's relationship with Jamal doesn't have the same equality and the same crackle as her wars with Lucious.
Instead of fighting with Cookie, Lucious is in jail for the early part of the season, running a not-quite empire from behind bars. He's still powerful, but the main thorn in his side is special prosecutor Roxanne Ford (Tyra Ferrell). However, their antagonistic relationship lacks equality, as Lucious is just toying with her. Again, these small battles serve their purpose to make you relish the tempestuous, give-and-take fights between Empire's two titans.
Empire's sophomore effort is more confident, more assured, and more cognizant of what makes it tick. Everything's just as big, just as boisterous as you remember. It's a stunning and addictive jam, reminding you at all turns who commands television right now.
As if there were any chance you might forget.
Empire's second season airs Wednesdays at 9 pm Eastern on Fox. Catch up on season one at Hulu.