At least a decade overdue but welcome to try its luck, Fox’s stylish if overly sudsy midseason drama “Empire” (created by Lee Daniels) is set in a deadly serious world of hip-hop and R&B record-label management — and all the high-carat nonsense that comes with it.
Terrence Howard (“Crash,” “Hustle & Flow”) stars as Lucious Lyon, a rapper who built his early-1990s recording success into a “Mo Money, Mo Problems” lifestyle as a platinum-selling producer and impresario. Now head of the Empire Entertainment media company, Lucious is battling mortality on two fronts: His doctors say he has a neurodegenerative disease that will kill him; similarly, his accountants have shown him the unpleasant math wrought upon the music industry by the Internet.
Empire’s board of directors votes to save the company by taking it public on the stock market (which hardly makes sense, but this ain’t the Jim Cramer show) while Lucious announces to his three sons that he is seeking a successor — which could be one of them, if they prove worthy. (“Is this ‘King Lear?’ ” asks the smart one, who is also the gay one.)
Each of Lucious’s sons represents a different trope to be dealt with: The eldest, Andre (Trai Byers), inherited none of his father’s musical talents and instead overcompensates as an intense, suit-wearing businessman who happened to marry a white woman. The middle son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), is the most artistically gifted of the three but is also gay, a fact the homophobic Lucious abhors, keeping Jamal in a suspended state of quasi-estrangement. Finally, there’s baby bro Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), who lives a pampered, faux-gangsta life and is preparing to cut his first rap album.
It’s here where “Empire’s” most interesting and most tornadic force blows in: Taraji P. Henson (“Person of Interest,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) as Lucious’s ex-wife, Cookie, who has just been released from prison after serving 17 years of a 30-year sentence for drug trafficking.
As we learn in a series of flashbacks, Cookie made the ultimate sacrifice for Lucious, taking the fall for the drug running that helped finance the launch of his career. Lucious ignored (and divorced) her while she was behind bars; now she’s demanding half of his fortune.
Wednesday’s premiere episode (the only one made available for review) ably sets up “Empire’s” central power struggles and the various degrees of opportunism and deceit lurking within the Lyon family. They aren’t a pleasant bunch, but I doubt anyone interested in the show was hoping for uncomplicated hugs and sentimental cooperation. Timbaland produces the original songs that give “Empire” its real oomph, while the actors try to figure out what kind of characters they’ve agreed to play.
“Empire” has wisely audited a few classes in the Shonda Rhimes school of high-low ambition, in which the drama of it all can successfully commingle with a little ridiculous swagger. The trick is to introduce characters that a viewer can ally with and enjoy yelling at and then have them do things that cause the viewer to yell even more. Catharsis can be great fun, unless it starts to feel like work.
The doctors have given Lucious three years to live, but I think it will take only another two or three episodes for viewers to figure out whether the Lyon family’s problems are worth all the fuss — by which I mean: Is this a show that would be fun to tweet about each week for an hour?
“Empire” better hope so.
(one hour) premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox.