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Empire: Season 1
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All 12 episodes of the Golden Globe-winning drama series created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. Empire Entertainment is a hip hop entertainment company headed up by former drug dealer turned music mogul Lucious Lyon (Howard). When he receives devastating news from his doctor, Lyon realises he must choose an heir to the throne of his company. There is just one problem: he doesn't trust anyone to run his Empire. The episodes are: 'Pilot', 'The Outspoken King', 'The Devil Quotes Scripture', 'False Imposition', 'Dangerous Bonds', 'Out, Damned Spot', 'Our Dancing Days', 'The Lyon's Roar', 'Unto the Breach', 'Sins of the Father', 'Die But Once' and 'Who I Am'.
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The weak spot of Empire is its leading man. Terence Howard is just not believable as a mogul or as someone from the hood. He is supposedly ruthless and his character does extreme things like shooting someone in the face but it never really makes sense. There's no edge to the performance. It really does grate when the show goes on about his character being an icon in his career. The phrase the Lucious Lyon Sound is not at all backed up by Howard's performance or by the music he offers. Indeed, Lucious Lyon's sound is middle of the road pop with some 90s RnB styling. Not at all groundbreaking or innovative.
This is entirely at odds with the two excellent musical performers in the show who are both utterly convincing. Jussie Smollett is the most heavily featured musician as Jamal. It is a really top notch performance portraying a gay man in a brutally heterosexual world. His music is also pretty good though is hampered by the horrible auto-tuning. There are some embarrassing moments though, with a rap battle against Black Rhino being painful to watch as Jamal puts his case by singing in a ridiculously high register and through a soft tone in the face of someone who really sounds and looks like hip hop.
Hip hop is where the show shines brightest. The best performer on display is Bryshere Y. Gray as Hakeem. As the young rapper, Gray has an intense energy and his mimicking of modern young pop-rap artists movements is spot on. If Gray was known as a musician he would be entirely credible. He has definitely got it. All of Gray's performances are exciting and fun, he spits like a genuine modern pop-rap crossover star.
It helps that these two are solid actors. They put on quality performances throughout the season as they handle the fallout from the various outrageous things that happen around them. Neither's range is tested too far but they both shine when on the screen.
The character designed to take up most of the screen when the music is not playing is Cookie Lyon. She is a funny character and full of great one-liners. For the dramatic part of the show, Taraji P. Henson is the real star. Her hot mama wardrobe shows her character's flair. She is also the only character who uses the backstory to portray what is happening at the moment. The hot and cold relationship with Lucious is excellent. Cookie is less credible when talking about music and her supposed influence on Lucious's career but she is always fun when on screen.
Various guest stars make appearances which add to the fun of the show. It is not always clear why they would sign up to Empire Records when many of them seem to be operating in different genres that the Lyons don't really specialise in. However, some are superb with the gospel singing of Jennifer Hudson being a particular highlight. Others such as Snoop Dogg are just there for name recognition purposes.
The music is definitely the bright spot of Empire. The plot certainly isn't. The holes in it as characters flip from one extreme position to another makes it annoying at times. This is simple, light entertainment. It doesn't hold together as a narrative at all really and the writing is pretty poor. Characters do things that make little sense and minor characters appear then disappear without much thought. If it wasn't for the music Empire would be a major dud. Fortunately it does have the music.
The extras on the DVD know exactly what the audience wants. There are lots of song renditions on display and they are largely worth enjoying. A good reminder of what makes Empire fun. There are also a couple of extras featuring talking heads, notably the creator of Empire but there's not much depth to the discussion. Fortunately Timbaland and Jim Beanz have good time to talk as it is clear that it is the combination of those two through the production and music writing that makes Empire a success. The Timbaland influence is obvious at times but Beanz seems to have done a great job as well.
Empire is simple music fun for those who don't mind pop versions of RnB and hip hop. It doesn't do much as a drama but as a vehicle for popular African American music it is an easy watch.