Fox’s Empire is the most painfully, embarrassingly brilliant show on any network channel right now. I can’t stop watching it and I’m ashamed of myself, because it’s all of the things I hate about TV rolled into one. So how did everyone’s favorite guilty pleasure become a ratings powerhouse and one of the most compulsively watchable programs around? The answer’s simple: it’s Cookie.
For the roughly six people out there not watching this show, Empire follows the story of Lucious Lyon (a character who sounds like he was named by Stan Lee), played (poorly) by Oscar nominee Terrence Howard, and the music business behemoth he created over the years, after being a chart-topping gangster rapper. Making things interesting for him (and us) is the rivalry betwixt his three sons all vying to be heir to the throne, a young fiancée who also runs his company, and his ex-wife and former business partner Cookie (played by scene-stealing Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson), released from a 17-year prison stint for drug dealing.
Oh yeah, and he’s dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Look, I told you this show is embarrassing. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Gee, that sounds awfully stupid and convoluted, not to mention just a combination of Dallas and Boss (the short-lived Kelsey Grammer vehicle),” then congrats. You’ve already picked up on just how lazy in conception this show really is. And it doesn’t get that much better from there. The dialogue, acting, and plot twists on this show are idiotic and often enraging. Plus, if all that wasn’t enough of a turnoff, it’s also basically a hip-hop Glee. Each episode treats the audience to no less than one, sometimes several, gaudy auto-tuned monstrosities of musical numbers.
But hidden deep in all these obnoxious shortcomings is the genius of the show. It is just Dallas, but with a black cast. But for maybe the first time on television, the power struggles of a family of black entrepreneurs is being played straight, by which I mean, with no apologetics. Lucious is a scumbag, a murderer, a homophobe, and a misogynist. His spoiled ilk are also almost uniformly unlikable as well, save the one sympathetic character on the show, his gay son Jamal. There’s racial stereotyping galore, and destructive ideologies are reinforced, particularly by the one white member of the Lyon den, the scheming and morally bankrupt wife of the eldest son. But again, this is what makes the show work. A more cowardly attempt at portraying a powerful black family would get all caught up trying to make the characters into role models. But they’re not role models, they’re a power-hungry family of elites. Just like JR was on Dallas, and Tony on The Sopranos, and a million other white characters were on shows where they didn’t have to worry about what people would think of their representation of their race.
By embracing the fact that no apologies are needed, and that they don’t have to set any examples, the creators of Empire, including Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels, have created the thing we all want most out of a prime time drama: action. Empire is dripping with sex, betrayal, murder, and all the other things that make this country great.
And it has the one thing no other show on TV can boast: Cookie. The character who best embodies all the traits of the show. She’s ruthless, manipulative, dishonest, driven, angry, complex, and entertaining to death. Henson plays her with the kind of breathless abandon that makes TV great. Halfway into the first episode, you can’t help but hate her. By the start of the second episode, you wish the show was only about her.
With music oversight from legendary producer Timbaland and ratings that have increased with every episode so far in its rookie season, Empire has a bright future. If you’re already watching, you know who Cookie is and why you can’t look away. If you don’t, you need to ask somebody.
Empire airs on Fox on Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
By Ygal Kaufman