Let’s Talk: Empire

“Why you marry that white girl?”

                 “We met in school.  She’s brilliant!”

 “All pretty white girls are brilliant.  Even when they ain’t.”

 You all should know me well enough to know that I don’t typically watch shows with plot that requires weekly viewing.  That said, the previews for the show intrigued me and I tuned in to see how I’d like it.

Short Version

Bitch, this was so fucking good! I’m watching it until it goes off the air.

Premise

Take it away, Fox Website!

From Academy Award nominee Lee Daniels (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Precious”) and Emmy Award winner Danny Strong (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Game Change”), comes EMPIRE, a sexy and powerful new drama about the head of a music empire whose three sons and ex-wife all battle for his throne.

Long Version

Before we get into the specifics of the show and why it is so effective, let’s talk about framing.

The show works so well because it is so Black.  It is a Black primetime soap opera.  It takes tropes from 70’s Blaxploitation, the rise of 90’s hip hop culture, and the current climate in Black pop culture.  It combines two generations’ “20-Year Nostalgia Cycle” and makes pitch perfect style and setting choices to portray Black culture intersecting in 2015.

It’s not “African-American”.  It’s not “nu Black.” This isn’t a show for Shea Butter Twitter.

Part of the success of the direction is because of director Lee Daniels.  Having a Black gay man who lived through these specific cultural movements creates a lens that places the show squarely in my frame of reference.  The use of one of my all-time favorite YouTube hoodrat classics:

A tacky, sexual song set to a feel-good instrumental?  That’s 2000s (R. Kelly’s Happy People) and 70’s disco cheese right there.  The whole show is full of these blink or you’ll miss it “mash-up” style and cultural references that effectively create the atmosphere.  Having Timbaland do the score for this show is another fantastic choice and an example of how the atmosphere is set.  His music has always been the sound of the today and of the future.  We’ve also built such a relationship with him as a producer that his sound is distinctly 90’s and distinctly today. (Oh hai 20 year Nostalgia cycle!)

The other important aspect of this show is never to forget that it is a soap opera.  Empire has a tawdry feel because it is a soap opera.  The slimy characters and telegraphing of character motivation is essential in this type of show.  Soaps are never about pushing boundaries.  These shows aim to make the audience feel smarter than the producers and then flip or surpass their expectations with drama and plot twists.  It’s key that you as an audience build expectations with a show like this prior to the actual payoff with plot.

Here’s an example: You know Luscious and Jamal (the gay son) don’t get along.  You didn’t realize he was going to throw him a trash can for putting on his mom’s fire red pumps.

Need another? Cookie repeatedly stands up for Jamal for being the only son to visit her in prison.  She becomes his manager and we see several scenes of her being accepting of his sexuality but whenever he’s not around, she uses derogatory language.

Now I could go on and on with all the plot twists the show set up in the Pilot, but that’s not my job.  Take notes, ho!

Casting & Characters

The casting here works brilliantly.  There’s some weak spots in the acting (hey Migos son!) But each cast member has the look and feel of a trope from the nostalgic or current eras being referenced.  Luscious & Cookie’s names are nothing if not pure 70’s experimentation. This was the era where Blacks were able to achieve some manner of success and grew up influenced by the Black Power moment.  Their sons Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem are totally prototypical 90’s Black names. You went to school with guys with those names.

Let’s go a step further.  Terrence Howard is one of the grossest people on the planet in real life and in his movies. Let’s let Patti LaHelle describe it.

Casting him as a greedy, money-hungry slimeball is the exactly what should be happening.  Howard’s history of (alleged) domestic violence works into the framework of the show. He’s almost always wearing silk pajamas (shades of Hugh Hefner) and candy is available in every room (shades of addiction).  The processed hair is such an inspired choice that I could write a whole post on it.  But since this is already long enough, it’s a sign of the respectability politics at play which was encouraged Blacks (like New Money Luscious) to conform to White beauty standards as they worked to climb the corporate ladder (especially in the 70s when wearing a process was akin to being an Uncle Tom).

Taraji, oh Taraji.  Cookie is a role that only she could work.  One of the saddest aspects of Hollywood is the series of bland, lowly roles for Black actresses.  Taraji has an incredible ability to play intelligent women in hard circumstances. She also has an edge, formed by her self-described life in a lower-middle class neighborhood and Historically Black College Education (NC A&T, Howard).  Her roles have capitalized on this upbringing (a touch of hood) in a stereotypical way that may have limited her from greater exposure to mainstream White audiences.  This role takes that stereotype, but ups the ante with better material and a more polished script.  Cookie is always dressed in animal print, gawdy but self-aware.  She’s not a character to take things lying down.  All honors must go to Taraji because she can act her ass off and she does it here.  She’s easily the most exciting part of the show.

The oldest son (Andre) played by uber-hottie and future husband Trai Byers.  The brilliance in his casting is that he is very 90’s handsome. Think of the square-jawed handsomeness of Shemar Moore or the appealing face of Morris Chestnut.  His character’s interracial marriage gives me the disappointment in Taye Diggs’ felt after the announcement of his (alleged and denied) feelings towards Black women.  One of my absolute favorite styling choices only shows up when he’s in the board room.  Whenever the camera pans over the table, he’s always wearing an oddly colored suit in comparison to the other members.  It’s a visual cue that he’s out of place and different from the rest of the table, much like he’s an outcast in his family.

Empire-pic-Trai-Byers-as-Andre-Lyon

#heyboo

The middle son (Jamal) is played by super cute Jussie Smollet.  The beauty of his casting is that he is the cute guy that every girl liked in high school.  He wasn’t the most popular and he was a little awkward but that was enough to make him endearing and adorable. This quality only enhances his character’s homosexuality as it renders him a bit unattainable. This stereotype has been around for years, but his Usher-like vocal quality places him squarely in the 90s and early 2000s.

jussie

If you told me that Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) was a member of Rae Sremmurd, I’d believe you. The hair designs, the high-top fade, the way that they dress him in a shiny metallic.  It’s all very now.  Even his character’s music is reminiscent of the current Migos/Young Thug era of party music. The emotional abandonment from both Cookie and Luscious fuel his partying and alcohol as an escape.  His closeness with Jamal is almost a dependency but you can tell that he knows that Jamal is more talented.  I think the dueling projects between the two could provide a great grounding for the more melodramatic qualities of the show.

The supporting cast is too vast for detailed description but I’m sure that as we are introduced to each one and start to learn their motivations, the show will only get more interesting.

Criticism

Alright, let’s do this. I’ve issued nearly universal praise for the show so far. But I do want to temper that this praise is due to the framing of this show as a soap opera.  We want it to tell compelling stories with campy drama, extreme emotion, and a suspension of disbelief.  This is not the real world and it allows for a looser narrative structure and a chance to attack the words and emotions with gusto.  In my opinion, the same can be said for Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and shows of this ilk.  There may be elements of reality borrowed to legitimize the story, but this is a work of fiction with fictional characters.

I state this because while most of the acting is good, there’s little nuance in the performances. Think about Olivia’s patented lip quiver.  It only works in that context because reactions on Scandal are typically full-scale to make it must-see television.

Actually, last night I discussed the show with Sass who brought up a really good point about the characters being mostly flimsy stereotypes.

“The smart son marries a white girl, Cookie is an aggressive black woman, Luscious was a drug dealer turned rapper.  I haven’t seen a break from the stereotypical black character.”

Because of my love for this episode, I wanted to disagree and even mentioned my thesis that the characters needed to be broad in a soapy manner.  But I could not argue against her because I agreed with that point. These aren’t new characters.  Nothing is breaking new ground at all.  Even 50 Cent’s messy ass had a point about some of the similarities to his show, Power.

I also absolutely HATE that the show is on at the same time as Black-ish. I am so pleased that there are least 4 shows currently on television with Black women in central roles, but to place the two shows with mostly Black casts in the same timeslot?  That’s bullshit.

With that said, I definitely anticipate some people writing essays about how shows like this are bad for Black people. “Setting the race back” is always a concern for the Don Lemons of the world.  I’d argue that the not-so-pleasant portrayal of African-Americans can be beneficial so long as there are positive and neutral examples in the media as well.

As a fan of the Golden & Silver age of Hollywood, I’ve seen many Sidney Poitier movies.  He along with other Black actors and actresses like Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte worked to only take roles that portrayed Blacks in a positive light.  This was incredibly admirable but it made the roles less interesting, in my opinion.  Poitier plays the same faultless man in so many movies.  This was done to show that the White characters hated him solely because of his race and not his actions.  This was necessary.  This was important.  But I’d argue that none of his roles are as memorable as Dandridge tarting it up a bit for the role in Carmen Jones.  Carmen is not a likeable character and yet she is more interesting than even Mr. Tibbs (who is my preferred way to view Poitier).

Taking this viewpoint, while I wish there were more varied and substantial roles for African Americans, I can’t deny that the show is so well-cast and uses a mythology that allows it’s soapy/fantasy nature to shine.  I also appreciate that very few characters are meant to be likeable or sweet. The only character being portrayed in a fully positive way currently is Jamal and with the way the plot has been set up, I don’t see that lasting (Secretly, the saintly treatment of the homosexual character is another trope of which I’m not fond. Shades of Kurt from Glee.)  These may be caricatures, but they are human.  No one is an angel but each character has real motivations and the show took the time to examine their reasoning briefly in the first episode.

Overall, I’m going to keep watching.  The season preview packed so many guest stars that I screamed at the television.  I can’t promise any full recaps but I will probably be tweeting about the show.  Let me know your thoughts and comments below.  However, remember to “Take that bass out of your voice when you talk to me!”

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