There’s wearing leopard print, and then there’s wearing leopard print. I thought I was passably good at the former, in a punk-rock style, but I’ve got nothing on Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), the proud, wounded matriarch at the heart of Empire, a new soap opera about a hip-hop record label. During the show’s first episode, Cookie surfaces from a 17-year prison stint, wearing a skin-tight leopard print dress, white fur coat, and gold heels. ‘What are you wearing?’ asks her middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), when the two are reunited. ‘What I got locked up in,’ she replies.
Henson is the best thing about Empire, which, like most soap operas, veers frequently between delicious and woeful. Cookie is the show’s conscience, but also its bad-mouthing, wisecracking anti-hero. Cookie was imprisoned for heroin dealing, taking the rap for her husband, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who went on to build Empire Entertainment with their drug money. Now he’s dying, though none of the family knows it, and is determined to groom one of his three sons – Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem – as his successor to the music business. ‘There can only be one of you,’ declares Lucious. ‘What is this, we King Lear now?’ replies Jamal. Thanks for flagging the subtext, screenwriters!
Jamal is gay and writes sensitive R&B ballads – Frank Ocean is a probable real-life model for the character. His mother thinks he’s a genius, and she has no time for his diffidence. ‘You so pure only a couple of hundred white kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco even know your stuff,’ she scoffs. (Zing! I can just imagine what Cookie would make of my white girl leopard print.) Cookie wants to make Jamal a star, while Lucious, who happens to be a homophobe, is backing youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), an aspiring rapper. Either of them could be the next head of Empire – not forgetting eldest son, the debonair Andre (Trai Byers), already an executive in the company.
Watching Empire (which debuted in the United States on Fox in January, and began screening locally on Network 10 in early March), I wondered why there haven’t been more television shows about record labels, the music industry being the cesspit of venality that it is. Forget TV dramas about police departments and hospital wards – a show about a record label comes with all that conflict, plus outfits, plus songs. It’s the songs that are the hardest bit to get right, and perhaps that’s why there haven’t been many predecessors to Empire.
The show’s music consultant is Timbaland, whose distinctive, sample-driven production style helped to shape the sound of artists including Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, Justin Timberlake and Jay Z. It is puzzling, then, that Empire’s many original songs – available to download as a stand-alone soundtrack – are so anaemic. Maybe Timbaland, whose heyday was 15 years ago, is simply out of touch, but I doubt it. It isn’t that the songs sound dated so much as they sound unreal and out of time altogether, like school musical approximations of the styles they are supposed to inhabit. When a track by actual hip-hop royalty (Kanye, Drake) appears on the soundtrack, it only shows up the difference even more. Obvious lip-syncing doesn’t help, either, turning Empire’s many “live” performance sequences into stiff music videos.
There’s a similar disconnect between the show’s ostensible present-day setting, and the sense that it’s taking place nowhere but Soap Operaville. Topical, pointed references to Barack Obama and Trayvon Martin are somewhat undermined by tacky, Dynasty-style shots in which characters contemplate their next strategic move by staring hard past the camera, or into the camera. Then again, the winner-takes-all premise of the plot isn’t exactly social realism.
Though Cookie steals every scene she’s in, there’s good work done by Jussie Smollett as Jamal, Grace Gealey as Lucious’s young, supercilious fiancée Anika, and Gabourey Sidibe with a small role as Becky, the company’s executive secretary. Meanwhile, my Twitter feed’s been lighting up with comments about a cameo appearance by Courtney Love – still forthcoming on local screens – as a has-been rockstar in need of a new hit. Sit back and enjoy the leopard print, I say.