TV Review: Fox’s Empire Brings Strong Performances To A Packed Pilot

Lee Daniels, Academy Award nominated director of Precious, has set his sights on the smaller screen, creating the new Fox series, Empire.

Empire is named for the entertainment company at the heart of the show, seemingly built and controlled by Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard. As the company prepares to go public in the face of waning music sales, Lyon gets a double dose of unwelcome news. First, Lyon is told he has three years to live, which leads the ailing patriarch to look to one of his three sons, one blinded by business, one a gay musician, and the last a spoiled rapper, to take over his legacy. Second, Lyon’s first wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), is released from prison after a seven year term for dubious reasons, and now she wants her fair share of Empire Entertainment.

Empire is boosted by some wonderful performances, led by the incredible Terrence Howard. In the pilot, Howard give the audience both someone to root for and be wary of simultaneously. Another standout for me is Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon, the talented songwriter who is also gay.

Unfortunately, most of this can be overshadowed in a pilot overstuffed with plot and cliche. Empire brings more to the table in its first hour than is necessary. We never get a chance to really connect with any of the characters because just as the action begins to wind down, the show trots out another story beat until we’re almost just beat down. The remainder of Empire just seems satisfied to hit the typical notes we’ve come to expect from a drama like this one, only sans any real bite. In case there was any doubt about the direction Empire wants to head, roughly halfway through the pilot, Jamal directly references Shakespeare’s King Lear as a comparison.

With only the pilot to go on, it’s too soon to dismiss Empire outright. I’m willing to bet that there’s lots here to enjoy. There’s plenty of time for Empire to find a better pace and voice, much like Lyon’s coaching of the vocalist in the opening scene. Don’t jostle for our attention, Empire. Give us a reason to care.

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