The 4 Highs and Lows of Empire

Empire is about a music label (of the same name) and the Lyon family that runs it. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the co-founder of the company along with ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson). When the series begins, Lucious has a meeting with his three sons, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), and Andre (Trai Byers), explaining that he intends to groom one of them to be the head of the Empire — but only one. Meanwhile, Cookie is released from being imprisoned for 17 years, expecting to take her half of the company. The series is about the five of them wrestling for control of Empire while trying to make it (and themselves) a success.

Since the show is about a music label, Empire contains a number of original songs, which the show presents with great assuredness (with Timbaland as the show’s music producer). Empire is also nighttime soap and is a deliberate, perpetual tornado of melodrama. Everything that has to do with the music great, while much of the melodrama feels excessive. It’s almost like it’s two different shows, which creates some great heights and some unfortunate depths.

Here are four of the highs and lows of Empire.


1. The Musical Search for Truth


In its best musical sequences, Empire is a resolute search for truth; for the part of our soul that burns so brightly we can only grasp it momentarily. Very often these are sequences where an artist is in the middle of working on a song in the studio and the song is missing something. As the artist improves the song (either by altering the melody or pursuing a more honest and personal performance) the audience joins in the process so that we feel a part of the growth of the song and character. And it’s this pursuit of a more genuine sound that is the most powerful, engaging, and beautiful part of the show. Take, for instance, the first scene in the show:

There is a reason the initial promos for Empire used this sequence — these sequences are the show’s heart. In the sequence we get to see how the song starts, we learn from Lucious’s speech what it takes to bring your truth to a song, and we see the heights the song reaches.


2. Musical Storytelling Sequences


Thanks to its musicality Empire is able to have these small, but wonderful storytelling sequences. For a show that is a nighttime soap opera, it’s great to have these small scenes that are built on top of music that tell us everything we know about how the characters are feeling and what’s happening.

The actors faces, their actions, and the music tell us everything we need to know here. We see how Hakeem is unnerved by the presence of his Father and we see that Laura can bring Hakeem back to himself (which is something Hakeem has said before, but this shows us).


3. Performances that Make Nighttime Soap Function


People probably think it’s easy to act on a nighttime soap opera. I would posit that it’s hard to do well. Characters in a nighttime soap don’t know they are on nighttime soaps; they believe their world is real. So every fight, every mental disorder, every murder, and every resolution of each of those conflicts must be something we believe as an audience. If our belief falters due to an actor’s performance, the show fails.

And the performances in Empire are what elevate the show. Consider the recent scene where Lucious returns home to find his Mother (Leslie Uggams) has made him several cakes. The premise for the scene is so audacious it borders on absurd. Lucious’s Mother tried to drown him in the tub as a boy and has spent the last 21 years in a mental hospital. Lucious is head of Empire. He is egotistical, boastful, powerful, and tenacious; but he is afraid of his Mother.

Notice that despite overly melodramatic premise, you do actually feel afraid for Lucious (and Lucious is not a likeable character). More than that, there is something enigmatic to the scene. The reversal of power, the changing of a man into a little boy, and a Mother that is so believably crazy we’re not sure if she’s going to stab him or if she’s poisoned the cake. All the while, ominous Beethoven plays.

There’s a lot going on in that scene. If all soap acting were easy this scene wouldn’t work and it wouldn’t feel as layered and intriguing as it does.


4. Copious Conflict


In Empire‘s first episode I was impressed with the great foundation for conflict. Three sons in competition with each other, a Father that hates his gay son, another son who has deep-rooted issues with a Mother he never knew, a bi-polar son who sometimes ignores his medication, manipulates people around him to gain power, and resents his family because he’s not an artist like them, and a Mother who resents the woman who has taken her place in the family and a husband who abandoned her in prison for 17 years. And this is the foundation the show establishes in the first episode.

Usually a show starts with one or two establishing conflicts that it will unfurl later in the series. Sometimes we have to endure a show that is searching for its conflicts while it figures out what kind of show it is. Empire doesn’t begin with a basic foundation, it begins with a tornado.


1. No Narrative Closure

It has been said that soap operas do not offer narrative closure. This is because the tornadoes in the lives of the characters never stop. There must be a constant source of drama to feed the twisters. As such, in a more traditionally episodic nighttime soap, it is difficult to fully resolve a conflict because the show must quickly move onto the next one.

For example, when Andre kills a man he spends a couple of episodes having nightmares about it. But once the body is dug up and presented to the authorities and Andre and his wife are no longer in danger from getting caught, the murder isn’t mentioned again by any of the characters. The show is so focused on its revolving door of conflicts it can’t waste time delivering a heartfelt, character building resolution; it’s just, “on to the next one.”


2. Soap Opera Music Moments


I could be mistaken, but I think a number of soaps have recycled dramatic music they play over the moments with new conflict. Empire is no exception and these moments are when the show is at its worst. Take a look at what I mean:

The silly music diminishes the performances. It causes me to lose my suspension of disbelief and my eyes begin to roll.


3. Some Actors Seem Ill-Suited to the Show / Format


As mentioned previously, acting in a nighttime soap is tricky. Even the actors on the show who are good at it (Jamal, Cookie) can falter. But then there’s actors / characters that just don’t work. Take the character of investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei). Tomei isn’t a bad actress so I don’t think that’s the problem. I also don’t know what the script called for, or what she was asked to do, but this is just bad:



4. Empire Seems Bi-polar

The scenes where characters are pursuing musical truth and where they are having calm, character-building conversations with each other contrast strongly with the scenes that are heavy with melodrama.

In one episode we can go from a discussion where Cookie is trying to justify why she wanted to smother Lucious to death with a pillow, to a later scene where Cookie reassures Jamal that no matter what happens between her and Lucious, she will look out for Jamal (reminiscent of the tender flashback where Cookie offered her support to Jamal during a prison visit).

It’s almost like the show has two identities; like it’s bi-polar. At times Empire has beautiful moments where characters explore their identities and grow through their music and at other times the show pushes its melodramatic agenda so hard our eyes roll.

Empire is like a troubled friend we believe in because we know deep down they are a beautiful person, but we can’t help but be disturbed by some of their behaviour. We cheer for their successes and pray for them when they fall. But in truth, someday we know we might have to let them go.

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