For the longest time, I have mentioned my amateurish, perhaps addle-brained theorem when it comes to entertainment; if you're trying to make a bad movie, starting even from script stage, if you put your mind to it then chances are it will likely happen. If there is any doubt in the story, then that will appear as the film (or show) rolls out to viewers. Empire falls firmly into the former, using Oscar-nominated performers, loads of style and music, and is more than comfortable with being a trashy prime-time soap opera following in the shoes of similar installments like Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest.
The focus of the show is on Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, Hustle and Flow), a Rap and R&B artist but also the head of Empire Entertainment, a multimedia business that supports musicians and athletes to name a few enterprises. It is grown in size as such that it is on the verge of conducting an IPO and becoming a publicly traded company, when Lucious learns that he has ALS, and given a life expectancy of less than three years. He uses this as an opportunity to challenge his sons, the business minded Andre (Trai Byers, Selma), creatively talented Jamal (Jussie Smollett, The Mighty Ducks) and the unrefined Hakeen (Bryshere Y. Gray), to see which one of them will take the reins of the business as Lucious' health declines. We also see Lucious' ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, Larry Crowne), released from prison after 17 years for taking the fall for a drug deal Lucious was running. She also fronted him almost a half million dollars to help get Empire running. She's mad, she wants half, and she doesn't care who knows it.
Among the show's executive producers are Brian Grazer (Get On Up) and Lee Daniels (The Butler). Ilene Chaiken (The L Word) is the show runner. Now those are three people with impressive resumes on their own. Then I see Danny Strong. Go do an image search on Danny Strong, then tell me how he's among these Oscar winners. Then I look further, and see that he's a multiple Emmy nominee and winner (for Game Change). Not bad for the guy who once wanted to kill everyone in Sunnydale on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And as it turns out with this quartet, the show moves pretty well.
There are moments large and small that make Empireappointment viewing, whether they are unintentionally comic or not. The show throws a big swerve to Lucious near the end of the season that in a normal show, would make you throw up your hands at the invested time that you have put into watching the show. In Empire, you cannot help but enjoy the ride. In a sense, you do throw your hands up, but you wave them around like you just don't care. If you are looking for logic or consistent linear storytelling for every character in the ensemble, go watch another show. The difference between shows that would come out muddled and shows like Empire is that Empire knows what it is and isn't, and if they miss something that you may spot from a continuity perspective, the show convinces you it wasn't worth spotting in the first place.
The show's guest stars seem to have been cast with the thinking of guilty pleasure with a dash of perfect choices in mind. Kudos to whomever decided Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) should be cast as Lucious' business rival. In a way it is a nod to the 80s' shows above and he does not have to have a lot of things to do in Empire as it is, other than look mean. Also, Courtney Love (The People Vs. Larry Flynt) as an aging icon of Empire dealing with the demons of addiction? Also perfect, full of laughs. Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) as Lucious' assistant is a subtle yet clever choice also.
In terms of story and performances, the cast goes into all of them committed, regardless of direction. Andre is bipolar, and we see him experience that gradually through the season, to the point where he is not only committed, but his care his entrusted to a music therapist (played by Jennifer Hudson, Dreamgirls). I don't know if music therapy to treat bipolar disorder is a thing, but when this decision is broken to Cookie, her reaction is ours. Also, Hakeem is a bit of a player, as his scenes with Camilla (Naomi Campbell) prove. Camilla's twice her age but he doesn't mind older women, as we learn in a slightly bigger way later on.
An understated thing about Empire is for all the laughing and jaw-dropping moments, and believe me when I tell you there is plenty of both, those at the front of the stage deliver when they're called upon. You're bound to laugh at the scenes with Howard and Henson, but you also get a little nostalgic for the days when Lucious and Cookie were living hand to mouth in the Philadelphia streets with their kids. Most of the time they deliver their lines with bluster and pomposity, and when they exhibit the depth of their characters, it is clearly evident.
Some folks tend to use hyperbole when discussing Empire, tossing around things like ‘TV's Biggest Smash of the Past Decade!' as the box boasts. I don't think it's that, but it isn't afraid to go down the coal mine that is depravity and serve as a show that folks will watch with unabashed joy. And it welcomes anyone that comes along with the ride, myself and others included. It is really a fun time for a new viewer.The Blu-ray:
12 episodes (well, 11, with the finale being a two-parter), split over three discs, all of which are presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and use the AVC codec for the Blu-rays. Whether it is the nicely lit offices of Empire or the darker moments in one of many clubs, colors look excellent and black levels in the material are deep and provide an excellent contrast to the material onscreen. The image is sharp and possesses lots of detail and haloing is minimal. Really gorgeous stuff from Fox.The Sound:
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 on all of the episodes. The show is very musical, which shouldn't be surprising. Considering that producer Timbaland contributed the music, it all sounds clean and has a nice bit of dynamic range. The subwoofer gets a workout as well. In quieter moments of dialogue, things are well-balanced, though the soundtrack isn't afraid to pan dialogue to the front channels to keep with the action onscreen. Directional effects are also evident, and everything sounds balanced and powerful. Maybe the best television show on Blu-ray I've heard in recent memory.Extras:
So there are full length musical performances on each disc, and the 11 performances run a little more than a half hour (33:40). A commentary on the pilot with Daniels, Grazer, Chaiken, Henson, Howard and Strong is about as funny and great as same, with a lot of joking and recalling inspirations for scenes and casting decisions. I'm underselling it, but I would honestly watch a separate show with commentaries from Daniels and Henson. Make it happen Fox.
The only other extras are on Disc Three, with three music videos (8:01) and two featurettes, the first being "It's in The Music" (9:17) which explores Timbaland's involvement in the music of Empire, and "Empire of Style" (8:26) looking at the hair, wardrobe and all that fun stuff.Final Thoughts:
Empire is a fun, big, entertaining mess of a show, but God help me, I love it so, and it knows what it is and does it well. Technically, the discs are stunners, but I would love to have more episode commentaries from Daniels and Henson alone. Definitely worth checking out, and it will become a guilty pleasure almost from the jump.