If we made a “Shows You Should Be Watching If You Aren’t Already Bingo” – and Holy Netflix, why haven’t we? – then Empire would have a full board. Empire is a musical drama about the family of music moguls and artists behind Empire Enterprises, a fictional hip-hop label. None of those key words appeal to you? Don’t worry. Empire has so many of our favorite tv show qualities and characteristics that I can’t think of too many people who wouldn’t like it. It has a classic television series premise (we’ll explain!), family struggles, fancy people – who used to be underdogs, if you’re the sort who hates fancy people, music, few enough episodes that you can catch up in a weekend, and 90s flashbacks. Okay? Okay. Let’s discuss that bingo card.
Classic Pilot Premise[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBzu_jKLJek]
Maybe none of your favorite TV series are about hip-hop dynasties, but you don’t have to be into the genre, you just have to like a good television drama. One of the classic tv series premises is the “shake up”: the pilot introduces a shift in circumstances for the characters, and the series progresses as people try to deal with it. I’m going to do this without giving out much info beyond the first episode. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the CEO of Empire Entertainment. Two of his sons are artists on the label: singer-songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). His third son, Andre, is the company CFO. Lucious is diagnosed with ALS, and he has to decide which of his sons will take over the label. Probably not Jamal, because he’s gay and Lucious can’t deal, but who knows? So that’s shake up, Part I. Shake up part II: The boys’ mother, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), is released from prison after 17 years and wants her piece of the Empire pie.
Biblical Family Struggles
Which child will be favored? Will the fight for their father’s blessing tear the brothers apart? And what happens when one parent chooses one child as a favorite, and the other parent favors a different child? It’s a family dynamic tug-of-war that’s as old as the Bible, and it makes for great television.
I like my television aspirational. Even when a series is about lower or middle-class folks, I want their clothes and house to be nicer than my own. Like, I wasn’t one of those people who was furious that Monica could never have afforded that apartment in Friends. What can I say, if I want to look at mall clothes and Ikea furniture, I can see them anytime I want. The Lyon family is totally loaded, and they’re in Hip Hop, so conspicuous consumption is the name of the game. Palatial estates, fur coats, a gold chain as thick as my hair braid … that’s what television is for. Lucious is partially inspired by Jay-Z, if that gives you an idea.
But maybe you disagree. Maybe you hate “rich people” (hi, Dad, didn’t know you read my blog). The Lyons rose from humble origins, and if the Jay-Z reference meant anything to you, you see where this is going – Lucious is a former drug dealer, which is what landed Cookie in prison.
Hip Hop[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtfFF_vYqrs]
I know, I said you didn’t have to like hip hop to like Empire. And you don’t. But if you do like hip hop, you should definitely be watching. Just about every episode has amazing musical performances. Jamal has a gorgeous voice, Hakeem is a solid rapper and most of his songs are collaborations with other great artists, and the original songs are actually good. Since it’s a show about the music industry, the transition to song is pretty seamless. It’s not like a musical where everyone is talking and then decides to rap-battle their family meeting (I would watch that though). It’s not hokey. Think more Nashville, less Smash.
If there’s one thing a tv series needs to be truly zeitgeist-y, it’s 90s stuff. Counterintuitive, but you know it’s true. Cookie was arrested 17 years ago, and there are plenty of flashbacks that take us back into the world of Empire during that time. For those of us who grew up on 90s hip hop and R&B, it’s a dream come true. [We also think you should be watching Fresh Off The Boat, another 2015 series with a fondness for 90s hip hop. What a time to be alive.] All I can do is hope that as the episodes go on, we’ll get to delve into the East Coast/ West Coast feud.
Speaking of the 90s, you may recognize Jamal from the 1990s series On Our Own, where he played an orphan growing up with his J-named siblings (sis Jurnee Smollett is one of those actresses that you definitely know, even if you think you don’t). He was also in Mighty Ducks. 90s royalty, is all I’m saying.
And You Can Watch It All Over A Weekend
There are a lot of shows I know I should be watching if I’m not already, but it’s just too hard. If there’s more than a season or so, you aren’t just deciding to start a show, you’re making a massive time commitment. But Empire just started in January, and as of right now, you can watch all of the back episodes online or on demand. Once you’re all caught up – so, by tonight if you have a free and clear schedule today, and by next week for sure, unless you have a busy weekend – you need to be watching this show. It airs on Wednesdays on Fox. The more people who watch it, the more people we have to discuss it with, so thanks in advance.