Television Review: Empire, Season 1

This first season review of Empire is coming to you less than two hours before the second season premieres in Australia. Television has become a strange beast, and Empire is the story of 2015. It was the biggest broadcast hit in a decade during an era in which the television audience has become increasingly fragmented. Meanwhile, there has been almost zero promotion of this show in Australia. It’s the most popular show in the world (sorry NCIS), and tonight the second season debuts on Eleven, one of Network Ten’s secondary channels. I also found it really difficult to find Empire’s first season when it debuted in Australia, so I waited until it came out on DVD. It was worth the wait. Spoilers for this show and also the third season of Person of Interest, which got really good in its second season. If you want to watch it start from the first season finale.

I love things that are musicals, unless they are Smash, which I was warned not to watch: the first two seasons of Glee and also Nashville. I also approve of the increase in musical numbers in Hart of Dixie‘s third season. The first I heard of Empire was reading Taraji P Henson’s wikipedia page after her character Detective Carter died on Person of Interest. Carter quickly became my favourite character on that show, which was due to both the writing and Henson’s acting. Anyway, I was skeptical but happy she had a new job, and didn’t think about the show until I read and heard reviews of the pilot in January, and heard that she was a force of nature. Damn straight she is.

So I was always going to watch Empire, because it’s a musical and also because I love Taraji P. Henson, Emmys Cheerleader. This is a difficult show to review in part because of its popularity, but also because I watched the entire season within about 72 hours instead of over 10-12 weeks. Lucious Lyon was barely able to look at Jamal yesterday and was furious with his coming out, and today Jamal is his successor. This is a fast-paced show, but the binge watch has its downfalls.

I did like the way the sons’ loyalties to their parents played out over the season, but the complete reversal in the last two to three episodes of the season felt like more of a reaction than an alienation that built over the course of a few weeks. All of them make sense from a character perspective: in spite or because of the homophobia, Jamal is desperate for his father’s love, and when they write a song together it’s all he’s ever wanted. Andre is the businessman, but his bipolar disorder crept in thanks to all the stress of the IPO, and his father wouldn’t even go and visit him in hospital. Hakeem was the heir apparent, and had we spent more time even learning a little bit about his motivations, he would have become a much stronger character. Lucious has moulded Hakeem in his image, like God did with mankind (it’s said several times that Lucious considers himself to be God), and while Hakeem is vain, he’s also the next generation. Yes, he’s young and stupid, but he also goes over to Jamal’s house after his coming out to tell him how proud he is. Anyway, Lucious basically deports Hakeem’s girlfriend, so he’s on Cookie’s side.

Empire came into the world knowing exactly what it was, and it didn’t try to stray from that path, even if the tone could have been a little more consistent. There’s music and drama and affairs and when it comes down to it, that’s all I need from a television show – The Wire is fantastic, but not every show needs to be or even should be The WireEmpire won the Television Critics Association Award for Program of the Year, because that award is about cultural impact, and Empire has had the biggest cultural impact of a broadcast drama in a decade. That’s pretty damn impressive.

Other thoughts:

  • Taraji P Henson is indeed a force of nature, and it’s been said enough that I don’t really need to say it again.
  • On the music: I’m glad Tiana is sticking around for season two after her disappearance in the middle of the season. I’m constantly singing either “Drip Drop” or “You’re So Beautiful”, so Timbaland has done a good job.
  • Since I only finished the season about 3 hours ago, my thoughts aren’t yet fully formed.
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