A couple of nights ago, two friends of mine who host a radio show were on the air, commenting on Empire and the way it freely plays out intimacy between two men — specifically, Jamal and his boyfriend, Michael. One of my boys was doing his damnedest to convince listeners that, while he has no hate in his heart for the LGBTQ community, he was uncomfortable seeing two dudes get it in on network television.
In his first comedy special, comedian Bill Burr once hilariously broke down how you can respect and support gay people and not be comfortable with the sight of them getting intimate. But when it comes to the uncomfortable parts of this show, the man-on-man action is the least of it. Three episodes in, everything about Empire seems just plain wrong. From the embarrassing story lines to the ridiculous dialogue to the scenery-munching overacting, this show has gone from being entertainingly trashy to just plain trashy. And that’s no fun to watch.
I’m coming to this conclusion from what I mostly witnessed in “The Devil Quotes Scripture,” the show’s latest (and weakest) installment. Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong weren't responsible for the writing and directing of this episode (it was written by Ilene Chaiken and Joshua Allen and directed by music-video-director-turned-filmmaker-turned-TV-director Sanaa Hamri), so I’m starting to think not having Daniels and Strong around to inject the right amount of guilty-pleasure flamboyance and outrageousness is hurting the show. Everything about it is starting to seem hideously grotesque.
Lead protagonist Lucious Lyon is definitely leading the hideous, grotesque charge. If the show is trying to make Lucious a black J.R. Ewing, they’re doing a really bad job at it. For starters, as scheming, unrepentant, and downright evil as J.R. Ewing could get, the dude was still a charming, charismatic sonofabitch. Even though Lucious is played by Terrence Howard, who can charm the drawers off a nun, given the right role (watch him in the Best Man movies and tell me if I’m lying), here he’s unfortunately saddled with a repugnant bully of a character.
Throughout this episode, Lucious swings his dick to and fro, not caring who gets knocked out in the process. The episode practically starts off with him beating the manager of an artist off-screen when the manager foolishly has the nerve to step up to Lucious and make some demands. Then he sinisterly commands his staff to find ways to take down the head of another label (whom he calls a “hairy dingleberry”) for signing former Empire star Kidd Fo-Fo.
Then after Anika (more on that trick later) notifies him that she had had Cookie tailed by a private detective, who snapped photos of the impromptu meeting she had with Agent Carter last week, he went all Ezekiel 25:17 on his ex, vowing to take down his enemies even if they’re in his own family. (Carter soothes his paranoia by pretending to be Cookie’s parole officer, as she and Cookie amusingly put on a ruse at Lucious’s boardroom so he could see it.) Keep in mind, he's telling her this at a funeral parlor where she is grieving over the dead body of her cousin, Bunkie, who, of course, Lucious killed. And this is right before he shows up at Bunkie’s funeral dressed in white. Seriously, this guy is a self-centered douchebag.
And then there's Lucious and poor Jamal. Man, the more Lucious refuses to accept his crazy-talented son for being gay, the more I think this guy has no business running a record label. As much as Daniels wants to blow the lid off homophobia in black culture, Lucious’s stubborn homophobia is irrational to the point where it makes him look like a brain-dead idiot with no business savvy and no home training. After all, how has this music mogul gotten this far in the industry without coming in contact with a gay here and there? And, quite honestly, how can Lucious say anything bad about gay people, especially when he dresses like a guy who’s been “delivurt” and “don’t like mens no more”?
With Cookie once again prodding him to shine, Jamal sings a song for his old man at a family get-together (oh, don’t worry — I’ll talk about that mess in a minute), a song that was originally written for Lucious — which he couldn’t exactly pull off — by Puma (Cuba Gooding, Jr.?!), an old flame of Cookie’s. While Jamal obviously nails the song, Lucious immediately starts making plans for John Legend to sing it, telling Jamal he’d probably have a great career as an arranger. This is the last straw for Jamal, who storms off with his bae Michael, prompting Lucious to call them “a sensitive punk and his bitch.” (After that harsh, out-of-nowhere slam, Cookie practically speaks on behalf of the viewing audience by telling him he’s going straight to hell.)
“Scripture” hints that Lyon’s hatred of Jamal may have less to do with his homosexuality and more to do with Lyon being just straight-up jealous of Jamal’s talents. This would explain why Lucious makes a surprise visit to Jamal’s place near the end of the episode. Apparently rocking one of Sun-Ra’s old robes, Lucious shows up looking confused and concerned. He actually looks like a dad. For a brief moment, Empire actually becomes an insightful drama in this scene, as Lucious and Jamal have a heated back-and-forth. (Howard and Jussie Smollett did some convincing work in this scene.) While Lucious, who still disapproves of his kid’s lifestyle, tries one last-ditch effort to understand the boy, Jamal lets him know that’s he’s a man and he doesn’t need his dad’s approval or his money. That actual bit of drama is briefly cut short when Lucious returns to douche mode, telling Jamal he still lives in an apartment his father pays for and smugly smirking when Jamal tells him that he and his boyfriend will be moving out immediately.
Outside, Jamal tells his boo — while eventually looking into the camera, no less — that he’s going to take his dad’s empire. I have no idea how the hell he’s gonna execute this. Maybe he’ll come out and slander Lucious as a disapproving, homophobic dad, giving Lucious no choice but to make him an Empire star. Maybe he’ll get with Lucious’s nemesis, who signed Kidd Fo-Fo, and produce hit tracks for his dad’s former client. (I would love to see scenes of Jamal in the studio with Fo-Fo, barely keeping it together as this damn fool spouts his lame rhymes over Jamal’s lush grooves.)
In all likelihood, Lucious will get his Ezekiel 25:17 on once again when his son wages a takeover. But Lucious will have other things to worry about besides his son throwing down the gauntlet. With his ALS starting to kick his ass, making his body shut down at the house, and a detective somehow figuring out that he is the man who killed Bunkie (thanks to rambling eyewitness testimony from a schizophrenic, homeless man named Old Salty), Lucious will have more things to keep under wraps than a gay kid. Eventually, he (and black folk who continue to watch this increasingly silly-ass show) will learn that two guys making out isn’t the worst thing in the world.
- I gotta admit that the family dinner, ill-conceived as it was (seriously, why would Lucious put these people together in the same room? And why would anyone agree to go?), is the most entertaining part of the episode. Of course, this is thanks to Henson, who scores some unexpected laughs (calling out Anika’s surveillance work, forcing Hakeem to hold her hand) as she leads the family in saying grace.
- As someone who finds older women attractive (people who know me know how I feel about one grand dame), I want to thank this show for taking the fun out of that by having Hakeem creep around on Tianna with Naomi Campbell’s sassy sugar momma. We knew Hakeem had some mommy issues with the way he’s been treating Cookie, but Jesus! Seeing Hakeem refer to her as “my momma” while they were making out on that pool table was just — well, I already said this show was wrong. (I hear Macy Gray will play another one of Hakeem’s lovers in a future episode. I’m not looking forward to that shit at all.)
- Speaking of uncomfortable sexual situations, Andre’s bipolar problems took a backseat this week, as he spent most of the episode taking women from the backseat. First, he gets behind the female deputy mayor, who furnishes him with info on Old Salty. Then he does it again to his old lady Rhonda, who not only knows he’s creeping around with the deputy mayor, but likes it very much when Andre calls her the deputy mayor while he’s hitting it. You just know they had a three-way at one point, with a whole lotta bib action!
- We’re all still in agreement that Anika is the worst, right? She’s so hellbent on making Cookie quiver in her Louboutins (what was up with that talk about being a debutante’s daughter and a classy hoe who stays clean even when she’s dirty — or however the hell it went?), claiming her place as the light-skinned queen of Lucious’s kingdom, that it doesn’t even hit her that she’s coming off as desperate. Perhaps her desperation is justified, since it's established all over this ep that there’s still something there between the former Mr. and Mrs. Lyon. (I think a lot of that has to do with the familiar, lived-in chemistry of Hustle & Flow stars Howard and Henson, who are clearly comfortable around one another even when they’re yelling, arguing or hurling shade at each other.)
- So, how long do we have before we get to the Big Shocker, where it’s revealed that one of the Lyon boys isn’t Lucious’s? By bringing Puma into the picture, the show is obviously putting it out there that maybe Cookie wasn’t so faithful to Lucious. While all signs point to Jamal, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was Hakeem and Andre.
- Even though Lucious said last week he didn’t want her there, Cookie has made herself quite at home at Empire headquarters. Does she have an office, or is she getting her Freddy Rumsen on and working whenever and wherever she can?
- Where the hell did Tasha Smith come from? I have a feeling there was a much better, well-thought-out scene, perhaps left on the cutting-room floor, that introduced Cookie’s sister better.
- Unfortunately, Malik Yoba’s Vernon didn’t have a lot to do in this episode. But he did get a nice chuckle out of me when he tells Anika, “[Lucious] ain’t cheating on you!” when she announces she hired a detective.
Let’s get on with it!