Lee Daniels's new diamond-encrusted, King Lear-esque hip-hop drama Empire premiered on Fox last night, and it's far from the worst Chicago show on TV—in fact, it premiered to 9.8 million viewers on Wednesday night, beating Modern Family. But while you should give the show a chance, don't block out your Wednesday nights just yet—Empire still has a few issues to work on.
The plot is this: Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is a gangster-turned-rapper-turned-record exec who's been diagnosed with ALS. He has three lucid years to live, and during that time must pick one of three sons as heir to his company. The oldest son is Andre (Trai Byers), a Penn grad who can't sing a bar of music. The middle is Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a gay musical genius, which Lucious resents. And the youngest son is Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), a charming, spoiled rapper who has a taste for partying. Their mother, Cookie (the wonderful Taraji P. Henson), has just been released from prison after 17 years, and she wants her share of the label, too.
The characters are glorified soap types—conniving and flighty and quick to emote. But the talented cast keeps the show from derailing. There will be small pleasures along the way—Gabourey Sidibe as Lucious's pert assistant, and apparently a cameo by Macy Gray—all while expository dialogue and sad violins guide the way.
Speaking of music: When the show isn't trafficking in orchestral swells, the actual hip-hop is… fine. Not great, but fine. That is both surprising (Timbaland serves as the show's musical producer) and unsurprising (why would he use anything really good on TV instead of a record?). The show's TV-MA restrictions also stick out like a sore thumb; in one inspired freestyle, Hakeem says the word "ish" (in place of "shit") four to eight times.
Some hip-hop imagery is also extreme. Take Lucious's childhood friend Bunky—far and away my favorite character before (spoiler alert) Lucious shot him in the face—who wears this Christmas-wreath chain:
Or the multiple Jumbotrons of erupting Champagne in Lucious's office:
That office, by the way, is the most Chicago we've seen so far. Though the show was filmed here, it's set in New York, and takes place predominantly in boardrooms and clubs that look like the inside of a lava lamp.
Locational bones aside, Empire's biggest issue is Lucious. At present, he's a lot less antihero than he is greedy, egotistical, and homophobic. But there are 12 shiny, hour-long episodes left, and they'll surely address the many (many, many) character flaws on display. Last night's pilot needlessly resembles its characters: caked with too much jewelry and makeup, but not so much that you can't see that there's potential for true human drama.