US drama Empire is melodramatic to the point of absurdity, with some dialogue that would make even E.L James blush at its lack of subtlety. Nobody in the real world ever says, “I will take down anything that gets in my way”, or “I want what’s mine”, but in Empire this is normal conversation. Characters often announce their intentions when nobody’s even around to hear, and there’s plenty of schmaltz, too.
Naturally there are a good few reasons why a lover of naturalistic, artful storytelling might balk at the brashness of this US import – but ten minutes into episode one, you’ll be so ridiculously entertained that all that will seem irrelevant.
I’m guessing that the show’s creators, Lee Daniels (The Butler) and Danny Strong (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay), have adopted the mantra: “Who cares about subtlety when you’ve got a soap opera merged with a musical Shakespeare play”? Empire has high drama, comedy and some great acting from a host of well-drawn characters. Throw some pleasing, radio-friendly hip hop performances into the mix, and you’ve got an addictive drama on your hands. As one of the most popular series ever broadcast in America featuring a rare example of an all-black star cast, it’s exciting news that Empire has now stormed across the pond to E4.
The story centres around Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a music industry mogul at the helm of Empire Entertainment, whose health troubles lead him to set up a King Lear-style battle between his three sons, none of whom are ideal for the role. As all this begins to unravel, Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) bursts onto the scene straight from 17 years in prison. Dressed in head-to-toe leopard print, with serious street smarts and zero deference to the suited-up company bigwigs, Cookie is endlessly joyful to watch.
Yet in amongst all the fun melodrama, Empire does some clever things. Like some of the smartest British soaps, it plays out issues that we don’t often see on-screen. Homophobia and bipolar disorder are tackled head-on in a ballsy, unapologetic way. In the very first episode Lucious’ gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) predicts he’s got no chance of taking over the company from his dad. “They’ll never pick me, ” he tells his boyfriend matter-of-factly. “There’s way too much homophobia in the black community.” And sure enough, Lucious behaves just as his son predicted he would: “Your sexuality, that’s a choice, son,” he tells him. “You can choose to sleep with women if you want.”
So while this strange, soapy, hip-hop King Lear might sound a bit wacky to us Brits, take my word, Empire is truly brilliant entertainment. And so full of cruelty, injustice and intrigue that I suspect even old Shakespeare would sneak a watch were he here.