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Beats, Rhymes, Ratings, and Spectacular Turtlenecks: ‘Empire’ Premieres

‘Empire’ is crazy, in a good way, and has as good of a chance of falling off the rails as it does in keeping up the pace of its torrid start.

You know who likes Empire, Fox’s new hip-hop soap opera? Everyone! The show premiered last night to some very nice ratings, as Variety reports: 9.9 million viewers tuned in to see Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson strut and scheme, numbers good enough for one of the biggest premieres of the season. What’s more: That means “three of the top four launches of the season in adults 18-49 — How to Get Away With Murder, Empire and Black-ish — are shows fronted by African-Americans.” Meanwhile, the show’s gotten not only the Shonda Rimes seal of approval, but that of our own Andy Greenwald. “Empire is the sort of big-swinging, bigger-swaggering series in which broadcast networks need to invest if they’re serious about surviving,” he writes in his review. “Like the best kind of pop, it’s far from perfect. But it’s plenty loud.”

That it is, down to its origin story. While creator Lee Daniels has, according to THR, borrowed bits from his own painful past for the show — one notable example: a scene in which a child is stuffed into a trash can for displaying effeminacy — there was also a more baldly, desperately capitalistic motivation.

“I get a nice little piece of money from movie to movie, but I have friends that do what I do in television and they’re gazillionaires,” Daniels told Variety. “I was like, ‘[cowriter] Danny [Strong], what the hell, let’s try to make the money for once.’ That was the motivation, I’m embarrassed to say.” Don’t be embarrassed, Lee! That’s exactly the kind of motivation one needs to make a show as nutty as Empire. This thing may be destined to be your guilty pleasure, whether you like it or not.

So what actually are we in for? A quick breakdown of last night’s pilot.

Lucious Lyon: Welcome back, Terrence Howard! You’ve kept your strangeness from us for far too long. As Andy explains, “Lucious is a king who earned his throne the hard way, transforming himself from a low-level Philadelphia drug dealer to a multimillion-dollar magnate on the back of marginal talent and an extraordinary drive.” Also! “He’s been diagnosed with ALS, giving him just a few short years to successfully hand the reins of Empire Entertainment over to one of his three sons. Will it be Andre, the MBA-flaunting smoothie? Will it be Jamal, the gay singer/songwriter dubious of fame? Or will it be Hakeem, the swagged-out MC?” (Twitter genius Desus, with more saliency: “LOL they gave him ALS cuz the ice bucket challenge was popping when they wrote this.”)

Lucious is explicitly not based on any one real-life analogue, but there was enough, uh, loucheness oozing that it was hard not to think of one Mr. Sean “Puffy” Combs. Was it then strange that when we first see Lucious, he is in an actual music studio, an activity Diddy — who, yes, may we remind you, is technically a “record producer” and “artist” — presumably long ago delegated out to minions? (In his defense, Diddy does go in there when it’s time to give Justin Bieber a jacket). No, it wasn’t strange, because the first thing out of Lucious’s mouth, while instructing an aspirant crooner, was “I need you to sing like you are going to die tomorrow,” which is definitely something Diddy would say. Then he reminded the singer of the pain she felt when her brother died, which was a super fucked-up thing to do, but also insanely effective, as she then immediately began singing like a beautiful banshee.

Other moments that rang quite true:

  • During a party on Lucious’s yacht, a disembodied voice can be heard saying “somebody get me some shrimp.”
  • A dinner table is described as having cost $40,000. This seems like the correct amount.
  • Lucious apparently gets frequent medical checkups, which seems realistic. Frequent medical checkups are important; we should all be getting frequent medical checkups. This is something Diddy presumably does, as he is no dummy.
  • Lucious wears a ton of color-coded turtleneck/blazer/silk-scarf combinations. This is not particularly Diddy-esque, because Diddy does not have a deep unshakable love for turtlenecks, but then again it is particularly Diddy-esque because the turtlenecks look fantastic.

Sean "Diddy" Combs Party at Paper ClubSylvia Linares/FilmMagic

  • At some kind of press conference/board meeting, Lucious spins a basketball on a gold pen. It’s incredibly impressive. I can’t say for sure this is something Diddy has literally done, but he probably has some kind of similar parlor trick that he pulls out when closing big deals.

Harder to swallow:

  • There’s a whole subplot with Lucious getting blackmailed by this dude Bunkie, an old friend from back in the day who knows where the bodies are buried — like, literally — and is sick of life as a Lucious cronie and, oh, also has a massive gambling addiction that Lucious has decided he’s no longer funding. Bunkie wears a dookie chain, apparently to remind us he is “old school,” and eventually he goes too far. Spoiler alert: Lucious shoots him in the head! In the first episode! He also says something very dickish, like, “I’d never let anything come between friendship. Except a bullet.” Actually, that part sort of makes sense: If you’re murdering your childhood best friend in cold blood, you wanna have a good one-liner prepped and ready to go.

Cookie: Henson is great as Cookie, the mother of Lucious’s children, now back to reclaim her throne after 17 years in prison. The first thing she does, stepping dramatically out of the prison yard, is say, “Cookie’s coming home.” Very good. Then she gets back into her ex-husband’s life, making dramatic claims of co-ownership that she sounds very much entitled to! Turns out it was her $400,000 that started the company, money she made selling drugs, drugs that got her thrown in prison. This is a simple enough narrative, one borrowed from the legend of N.W.A: Supposedly, it was Eazy-E’s illicit fundraising that got the crew their seed money.

Dress- and braggadocio-wise, Cookie’s also channeling vintage Lil’ Kim. But mostly, she wants to be a good mother to her children. Sometimes it means coddling a kid from the ugliness of homophobia. Sometimes it means beasting a kid with a “You so pure, only a couple hundred white kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco even know your stuff.” And sometimes it means beating a kid with a broom. Later, that kid will explain “she beat me with a broom, bro,” and it will be good.

Side note: Please no one tell her parole officer that Cookie already has a gun.

The Sons: Look, there’s no chance the three actors playing the sons have a shot at hanging with Henson and Howard over the course of the whole season, so we don’t need to get too deep there. But at one point the snooty one did say, “Rita, did you bring the hummus?” and that was wonderful.

In Conclusion: Empire is crazy, in a good way, and has as good of a chance of falling off the rails as it does in keeping up the pace of its torrid start. But either way, it’s gonna be fun to see what happens.