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Fox's 'Empire' Sets 'Dynasty'-Style Soap Opera To A Hip-Hop Beat

The stars of Fox's new drama <em>Empire</em> (clockwise from left): Bryshere Gray, Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.
Michael Lavine
The stars of Fox's new drama Empire (clockwise from left): Bryshere Gray, Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett, Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.

At times, Fox's new hip-hop centered family drama Empire feels like Dynasty by way of Jay-Z and Beyonce — or Glee with a beat.

Especially during scenes like the moment that pops up early in Wednesday night's debut episode, when two brothers improvise a song together during a house party that winds up sounding like it was pieced together over weeks in a Los Angeles recording studio.

Credit musical director and hit hip-hop producer Timbaland for spicing up Empire with head-turning tracks that actually sound like they could be big radio hits.

Unfortunately, the show's plot is a little less original: Terrence Howard plays Lucious Lyon, a rapper-turned-music mogul with three sons; secretly stricken with a serious disease, he wants to groom an heir as their company goes public.

"It can only be one of you," Lucious tells his boys during a family meeting.

"What is this?" says one of them. "We King Lear now?"

Lucious responds with anger: "Call it what you want, smartass. ... In order for it to survive, I need one of you Negroes to man up and lead it!"

Less King Lear than The Godfather, this succession fight features three sons who seem little more than stereotypes: the clean-cut son with a white girlfriend, trying to prove he's really black; the gay son whose dad won't accept his sexual orientation; and the volatile hip-hop star with more style than good sense.

Fortunately, this show has an ace in the hole.

Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson eats up the scenery on this show as Lucious' ex-wife Cookie. She's steely, streetwise and savvy about the music industry. But she took a fall for Lucious, going to jail for 17 years so he could use $400,000 in drug money to start their company.

As the show begins, she's fresh out of the slammer and threatening to derail everything if she can't manage her son's career.

"I've been living like a dog for 17 years, and now ... I want what's mine," she tells Lucious while plunking on a piano in his office. "I want Jamal."

This sets up one of many conflicts on the show, as Cookie takes over managing their gay son, Jamal, and Lucious backs in-your-face rapper son Hakeem. Clean-cut son Andre has subtly encouraged this — egged on by his white girlfriend — in hopes that his two other brothers will destroy each other.

Just like the films Daniels has directed, "The Butler" and "Precious," "Empire" soars highest when probing the conflicts and contradictions of the black family.

It's safe to say network TV has never built a show around a black family quite like this. And that challenge inspired co-creator Lee Daniels.

"There just hadn't been any African-American television that I respected ... or hadn't been for a long time," he said in a behind-the-scenes program about the series. "And I thought, what a way to come and give you a provocative sort of look at a family in the hip-hop world."

Some things don't work here. There are so many storylines, the pilot seems overfilled with high drama. And positioning the white girlfriend as a Machiavellian schemer with the duplicitous Andre seems a troubling and too-obvious knock at black men who dare to date Caucasian women.

But Empire really clicks when showcasing this wealthy black family that started out poor.

Lucious rides his sons hard. He tells one to "take the bass out yo' voice when you talk to me," in an old-school rebuke to kids who dare to talk back.

And in a flashback scene to when Jamal was a young child, we see Lucious spot him wearing women's shoes and attack him, trying to dump him in a trash can.

But Cookie stops her husband, comforting Jamal. The incident resembles a story Daniels told about his own childhood during an interviewwith Out magazine a few years ago, hinting at how personal some of these plotlines are.

Just like the films Daniels has directed, The Butler and Precious, Empire soars highest when probing the conflicts and contradictions of the black family, making high drama out of the dysfunction lying just beneath the surface.

Empire debuts at 9 p.m. EST Jan. 7 on Fox.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.