Empire Is the Most Aggressively Political Soap in TV History

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon (left) and Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon. Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX

Empire attained maximum ludicrousness in its season-two premiere Wednesday night, reaffirming that it’s not just the most shamelessly enjoyable melodrama on TV, it's the most politically daring. Calling it a black Dallas or Dynasty doesn’t do it justice; it’s not just one of the goofiest nighttime soaps in TV history, it’s hands down the most aggressively political, always positioning its overwhelmingly African-American cast in relation to a still mostly white medium that doesn’t think about whiteness as a kind of culture, too. From the placement of illustrations of pop-culture icons to whom Lucious is presumably an equal (Alfred Hitchcock, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holliday, James Earl Jones) to the continual definitions and redefinitions of blackness, as embodied by the characters' arguments and power-grab schemes, the premiere alone had more to say about the tricky predicament of black entertainers on network TV than any of the think pieces that have been written about Empire since it debuted.

We pick up with Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), now in jail for three months (the length of network TV's summer hiatus, conveniently), and his musically talented and morally righteous middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), at the helm of Empire. Meanwhile, Lucious's ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), has her own plan to wrest control, by forging an alliance with a glamorous lesbian billionaire, Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei). Episode co-writers Ilene Chaiken and Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels seemed to have made a list of what to include in order to satisfy fans, checked every box, then added new boxes and checked those, too. There was a board meeting featuring not one but two surprise appearances, by Mimi Whiteman (who apparently had spent the first few minutes after the guests’ entrance turned around in her chair so that she could turn around and surprise them?) and Lucious (from prison via Skype; I guess somebody in the boardroom must’ve had him on IM so that he could get the timing just right). There were family arguments and reconciliations, corporate double-crosses and triple-crosses, guest appearances by the likes of Al Sharpton and Don Lemon and Vogue magazine’s Andre Leon Talley, and a large-scale “#FreeLucious” concert that kicked off with a caged Cookie in a gorilla costume being lowered onstage, tearing off her mask (a nod to 1932's Blonde Venus) and delivering an impassioned speech about the dysfunction of America's prison-industrial complex (New York's Jada Yuan smartly examines the ten-minute opener here).

The drama was all over the map, the pacing unsteady, and the casting hit-and-miss: While Tomei was sly and likable without being given a whole lot to do besides grin knowingly, Chris Rock was, to put it mildly, less than convincing as a criminal whom Lucious supposedly respected and feared on the streets of Philly in the ’90s. Throughout, I got the uncomfortable sense that Empire was on the verge of becoming too enamored with its own swagger, more content to contemplate its power over the audience than be an all-cylinders-firing TV hit.

And yet there’s still plenty to contemplate on this series. So much of the show’s energy comes from the way it reclaims, or simply claims, TV tropes and bits of American pop-culture history as its birthright, and puts them to its own use. The show's hero, Lucious, is King Lear by way of Berry Gordy, plus a dash of Archie Bunker. Lucious believes he represents a whole and powerful black male persona, but in the eyes of many of the other characters, he's a dinosaur who should have become extinct by now. Lucious’s very existence on Empire amounts to a weekly referendum on a particular image of often-toxic masculinity (though of course the show is having its cake and eating it too, by making him so funny and confident and seductive, in much the same way that All in the Family both condemned and reveled in Archie and Dallas simultaneously lamented and reveled in the twinkly-eyed viciousness of J.R. Ewing).

Empire is cynical and sincere, kidding and not kidding, dumb and smart, and to watch it is to be constantly amazed by what it gets away with. The first ten minutes of the premiere were almost magisterial in their corniness, as well as in their control of image, performance, music, and sound. A part of you cringes when that cage touches down at the "#FreeLucious" concert and Cookie begins referencing institutionalized police brutality and the inequities of the American correctional system ("We should be performing for the brothers and sisters that are innocent," Hakeem cautions his mother), but another part marvels at the sight of a network show using King Kong as a pop-culture metaphor for real-world political and racial ills.  (See David Rosen’s 1975 article “King Kong: Race, Sex and Rebellion.” No, really do — it’s great.) There is a sense in which Cookie’s taking off that mask is a metaphor for what Empire does in almost every scene of every one of its episodes. It trafficks in racial stereotypes, and other kinds of stereotypes, but makes the characters so dramatically rich, and gives the actors so much leeway to interpret them, that they quickly cease to become clowns, goons, ingenues, schemers, and the like, and instead become vehicles by which serious issues can be examined, or at least presented. You can criticize the premiere for political grandstanding in a cynically trivial context, but then you’d have to overlook the fact that Empire is the first network drama with a predominantly black cast to become an across-the-board hit, and has decided to use its power to do things like spend several minutes railing about mass incarceration as implicit continuations of slavery and Jim Crow.

Nestled at the middle of this vortex of music and treachery is the relationship between Lucious, who gets to strut about in an orange jumpsuit and outsmart chumps who think he's lost his edge, and Cookie, who has a Bette Davis death-stare and withering put-down for every occasion. These two despise and adore each other. "Why you looking like Mr. T?" he greets Cookie when she comes to visit him in prison. Moments later, he's staring at her in wonder and admitting, "It's funny how I can love your ass and hate you at the same moment." There might be some viewers who feel the same way about Empire, but for now, it’s probably mostly love.