Well, that was entertainingly ratchet!
Oh, yes, ratchet is a term you’ll most likely see frequently here as I spend the next several weeks recapping the drama on Empire. For those who’ve never heard the word used as an adjective before, let me give you my favorite definition of the term, courtesy of UrbanDictionary.com:
“Ratchet is If Ghetto and Hot Shitty Mess had a baby, and that baby had no father, and became a stripper, then made a sex tape with an athlete, then became a reality star!
“Basically Ratchet is a term for someone who is such a ghetto/slutty/ugly/trashy hot mess that you have to use a word that doesn’t even technically apply because what you are seeing is such a mess that it goes beyond any normal description.”
Indeed, Empire is a mess — an amusingly tacky, quintessentially hot mess. Creators/The Butler collaborators Lee Daniels (who directed the pilot) and Danny Strong certainly waste no time in assembling the sort of gaudy, trashy, guilty-pleasure TV that’ll keep Black Twitter percolating whenever it’s on the tube. It’s like this show was literally made to be a definite topic of discussion at barbershops and beauty salons all over this great land.
From the minute we first see Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon, with his ever-rising conk and diverse network of silk scarves, in the studio, trying to get the best out of a bald-headed singer (first he tells her to sing as though she’s going to die tomorrow, then he gets in the booth to help her remember when she heard her brother was shot and killed, which predictably incites the singer to cock her head back and give him a “Seriously, fool?” stare), we know this sudsy soap-opera is going to get more over-the-top with each passing minute.
And if that’s what you’re looking for in your African-American-populated, soul/hip-hop-flavored, nighttime drama, then the pilot certainly didn’t disappoint. There’s immediate tragedy, as Lyon flashes back to a recent hospital visit during that studio session. We later find out he’s been diagnosed with ALS, which means he may not live long enough to hear anybody sing tomorrow.
Even though he keeps that bit of info to himself, the music mogul still corrals his three boys for a meeting where he tells them one of them is going to have to take over the family business when he goes. The fact that he’s making them fight like they’re Shakespearean characters — “We King Lear now?” one of them sarcastically asks — isn’t lost on them. (Technically, the show is based on The Lion in Winter — you knew their last name was Lyon for a reason, right?)
Right from the jump, Lucious’s oldest boy Andre appears to be the proper candidate. After all, he is the most business-minded and Dad’s right-hand man. Unfortunately, Daddy Lucious wants a celebrity face to run the company. Lucious would much prefer Hakeem, his bratty baby boy and rapping enfant terrible, take over the reins. But the boy is far too callow and far too into money/cash/hoes mode. (Seriously, did you see that gigantic, ugly-ass portrait of him on the horse at his place? This boy ain’t ready to run a damn thing!) Middle child Jamal would be a worthy choice, considering the singer/songwriter is by far the most talented one in the family. Unfortunately, there are two problems: He’s not that famous, and he’s gay, which his father refuses to accept.
It turns out there’s something else that’ll send Lucious to an early grave before Lou Gehrig’s Disease does. His estranged wife Cookie just got out of jail after 17 years. She immediately makes her presence known, visiting Lucious and the boys, rocking a cream-colored fedora and a lot of beige. (Hakeem hits her with, “You want a medal, bitch?” when she tries to explain the sacrifices she made for them, which results in Cookie giving him a much-deserved broomstick-beating.)
She also makes it known that she wants what’s hers, which is half the company and a head-of-A&R position. If it wasn’t for the flashback scenes showing Cookie as Lucious’s creative muse, advising her do-ragged significant other on recording his vocals and finding the right hit single, the audience would think Cookie is a bitter-ass heifer who wants to take down her former man’s company.
As much as Taraji P. Henson hams it up with this chicken-headed version of Alexis Carrington (what the hell was up with that shit at the piano?), Cookie turns out to be the most sympathetic parent between the two. Howard spends most of the pilot assuming the role of a coldly manipulative Svengali, literally trying to pit brother against brother and getting his hands dirty once again when the former drug dealer’s business is threatened. Even though she has no qualms calling her boy Jamal a “stupid sissy,” a “queen,” and, of course, the dreaded “faggot,” she accepted his homosexuality a long time ago. (During another flashback scene, she takes the young, high-heel-wearing Jamal out of Lucious’s hands when he sticks him in the garbage, a despicable act that Daniels experienced as a kid.) And thanks to prodding from a strategy-minded Andre, she also wants to run his career, which Jamal reluctantly accepts after Lucious coldly dismisses his talents for the last time.
Jamal and Hakeem are both bright enough to know they are merely pawns in their parents’ battle for supremacy. For some reason, no one can recognize that Jamal and Hakeem work well together and would probably make a killer sibling act. (The pilot has not one, but two Timbaland-scored scenes where the thick-as-thieves pair come up with a hit-making tune out of thin air.) But since conflict has to fuel this show, expect the older and younger Lyons to all be at each other’s throats throughout the series.
- So, is “special guest-star” Gabourey Sidibe going to be a recurring player on this show, or is she helping out Daniels, who cast her in her Oscar-nominated title role in Precious, with this bit turn as Lucious’s sassy gadfly of an assistant? I would love to see how many ways she can thot up her hair in each episode. It’s almost like she and Howard are battling it out for who has the most preposterous hair.
- Well, even though we didn’t know much about Bunky, except he was a degenerate gambler who had no problem pulling out a pistol and shaking down old pal/boss Lucious for money (to which Lucious responding by shooting his ass dead underneath a bridge), I must admit I’m gonna miss seeing those velour tracksuits.
- Wow — for a minute there, I almost didn’t recognize Malik Yoba as “Uncle Vernon.” Man, it’s been a long time since that brotha was all buff and bald-headed on New York Undercover. Now dude looks like he should be running a hardware store. I certainly did enjoy seeing him spar with Henson, who can lay a “bitch” on a dude the same way pimps lay down slaps. Speaking of that …
- From “We’re gonna put some candy on this thing!” to “Take that damn bass voice out of your voice when you’re talking to me!” Terrence Howard couldn’t stop sounding like a Tennessee pimp if he tried.