FOX's new “Empire” is the kind of unapologetic melodrama that can go to commercial with Taraji P. Henson pronouncing, “I'm here to get what's mine!,” followed by a melodramatic musical sting. It's from Lee Daniels, who co-created it with Emmy-winning writer (and sometime-actor) Danny Strong, so it ain't subtle. And yet… the scene I found myself enjoying the most in the pilot episode (it airs tomorrow night at 9) is a relatively quiet one, where Henson's Cookie and Terrence Howard's Lucious are swapping stories from their time as a couple. He's now a Jay-Z-esque hip-hop mogul, and she's just out of prison and, again, here to get what's hers, and both would like nothing more than to absolutely destroy the other – but even as they're swapping barbs and holding metaphorical knives behind their backs, it's clear that they still enjoy each other's company on some level, and that the attraction they had decades earlier hasn't completely been extinguished.
It's a nice moment, helped enormously by the chemistry between the show's two Oscar-nominated stars, and a smart wrinkle on an old soap cliche. Though I suspect the fact that it stood out as my favorite says more about me, and my usual disinterest in the kind of show “Empire” is trying to be – and, I think, doing a pretty good job of in the one episode FOX made available for review – than about “Empire” itself.
Lucious is a Philly-born rapper who has become a mogul on a first-name basis with President Obama, but in the pilot's opening minutes he gets some news that convinces him it's time to pass the reins of his corporation over to one of his three sons, each of whom is in some way unsuitable to take over: Andre (Trai Byers) has all the business training but isn't a performer (and therefore not right for a star-driven company), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is a talented R&B singer-songwriter, but Lucious doesn't approve of him being gay (and assumes his audience agrees with him), while rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is good with a rhyme but completely lacks discipline.
It's a solid enough foundation, very loosely based on “King Lear,” but then shaken up with the return of Cookie, who helped found the company with the money she just spent 17 years in prison over, and though both parents profess to be protecting the kids from each other, they really only seem to be interested in the empire itself, rather than its would-be heirs. And with Timbaland attached to help produce the songs performed by Jamal, Hakeem and others, the musical setting feels absolutely credible.
Howard does his soft-spoken devil thing as well as always, but Henson's the main attraction, diving into the soap diva role with such passion and fury that I can picture Madeleine Stowe's “Revenge” character cowering in her safe room until Cookie left her home.
It's been a while since “American Idol” was a useful lead-in for any scripted show, and at first glance the record label setting might make “Empire” the most compatible show to air after it since “Glee.” But as Fienberg noted on yesterday's podcast, the “Idol” audience has trended heavily towards country over the years. Will the remaining “Idol” fans stick around to watch this? Are there enough remaining “Idol” fans for it to matter? I don't know, but with the former “Hustle & Flow” co-stars as the leads, whoever tunes in will get something interesting.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org