#Empire shows how a cast can elevate a script in its pilot. All heil Taraji P. Henson!

I cried in the pilot of “Empire.” Sure it’s great if a script gets you with its cleverness or wit, but the true test is Did it make you Laugh or Cry or the Holy Grail, Laugh and Cry? I love “Hustle n Flow” and so was excited to see Terence Howard and Taraji Henson reunite and their chemistry has not faltered a bit since that indie hit over a decade ago. Mr. Howard is perfect for this part and I’m excited to see how he develops but Henson’s character “Cookie” carries this show, at least the pilot. She is a Tiger Mama and maybe it’s the phase of life I’m in but for me, that trumped all else.

EmpireWhat has snagged me to this show is the story arc with Jamal. If you aren’t moved by how that little boy is treated then you have no soul basically. Even if you aren’t gay, the need for parental approval is universal and the hurt at being rejected for who you are transcends all cultures. It is due to Ms. Henson’s extraordinary talent, which I have always admired, that within one hour my allegiance is with Cookie. Murderer or dope dealer or whatever she was or will be, she is real and she is a Mama who protects her flock above all else.

I don’t always agree with A.V. Club reviews but their review of “Empire” was spot-on. They emphasized that it was a strong concept, not great script. But pilot’s are different. They’ve got a lot to do and “Empire” did it: Set up the concept, the main players, the main conflicts, the mysteries, and left us with a family we’ve gotten to know and are about to be torn apart leaving viewers wanting more (as per ratings).

Sure, it borders on hackneyed at times, but here’s the thing about writing “real”: normal people aren’t always witty or philosophical. If you want to sound authentic then it will sound bad on a page. It just will. Record two people talking. They will overlap often, repeat words, have fillers, say nothing particularly interesting. The key is to have it sound like it could be real and yet not be real which 9 out of 10 times would be boring. I have no idea about the hip hop industry, other than being an avid listener, but hell, it rang authentic to me. It would’ve been stereotypical had the cast not really upp’ed their game. It also helps to have Timbaland be the music producer and Lee Daniels be one of the writers and EP’s. It lends credence to the show that they know this world from the inside out.

I hope this show takes off. It’s refreshing to see another side of American high class society. It’s refreshing for a show not kowtow to having some white person be the lead just for the sake of it. Some of these characters could be nowhere else but in this world and they are too strong to be sidekicks in other shows where they’d be, and often are caricatures.

In order for it to soar, it’s got to take risks. If I’m rooting for Cookie and Jamal so are others but for this show to really take off, it’s got to make the “bad” guys win, it’s got to bring Jamal or Cookie to their knees at times, it’s got to add dimension to Howard’s character who just shot a man and yet is struggling with his own mortality. It’s got to add something new at the end of every single episode, whether it’s a twist or a WTF or Yes! or an Oh No! There’s a war on and it’s got to feel like it with all the blood and vulgarity and moments of fleeting goodness that comes with it.

“Empire” has a rare opportunity to explore the price of success, the temptation of legacy, fear of death, race, and class in an entertaining story with a cast that can play many strings. All of this within a culture we don’t see on TV or film.

Now, I’m going to download some of that hot music.


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