Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Lyon in Winter

When I first started watching Fox's breakout hit Empire, I will admit that I was mostly watching from the standpoint that this show was probably going to be bad, but in a good way (and I would argue that my delayed-live-tweeting of the pilot was an indication of my basic mindset. But I stand behind everything I said regarding Cookie's various hairstyles. I could probably write an entire blog post solely about Cookie's mid-90s Philly Blond Wig from tonight's episode). I did find the show intriguing enough to keep at it, and while I have not had the chance to watch it 'live,' I have been doing my best to stay current. I had heard rumors flying around that the most recent episode was particularly noteworthy and let me just echo that sentiment with a resounding 'YAAAAAAAAAAAAAS.' Because Empire kicked it up a notch this week to almost Kimberly-blew-up-the-apartment-Melrose-level crazy--stated with all due respect--and has proven itself to be a worthy heir of its primetime soap ancestors.

Let me start by taking a moment to acknowledge the direction of John Singleton for this episode (yes, that John Singleton who made Boyz N the Hood) and who, I think, really got what primetime soaps are supposed to be all about. This is over-the-top crazy ridiculous nonsense, in the most compelling and amazing way. Not to mention that there is no taking your foot off the gas in this episode, which is precisely what this genre requires. The dramatic moments are stacked one on top of the other, so that if you had to briefly summarize what happened, you would just basically give up (in this way, primetime soaps are similar to many French and Italian 19th-C operas, where event after event occurs, leading to the denouement. So the opposite of Wagner). And while previous episodes had moments bordering on such sublime improbability, this week succeeded to an unprecedented degree. Don't get me wrong. Past episodes foreshadowed that this show had what it takes to make it. My all-time favorite line was from last week, when Cookie casually dropped the fact that the Nation of Islam killed Lucious' father (Whaaaaaaaaaaaat? And no, there has been absolutely no follow-up. None. Nada. I cannot wait).

Other things that Empire has given us: Countless animal prints. A replica Elizabeth Taylor engagement ring. Board meetings with basketballs (yes, 'meetings' was plural there on purpose). What is possibly a rendering of Napoleon (someone on a horse?) on Hakeem's wall. Cookie preparing to go to war by taking out a gun, a wad of cash, and then pausing to don a fierce hat. Naomi Campbell as Hakeem's quite-a-lot older 'side piece.' A piano in virtually every room. Judd Nelson as exploitative villain. A club named Leviticus. Let me repeat that one, because it bears repeating: a club named Leviticus.

Where Empire differs from its forebearers, though, is in its ability to tie together various strands of cultural products, much in the same way that hip hop does. While there is no 'mixing' per se, the uncanny way that Empire draws on a variety of influences by presenting them both simultaneously and in juxtaposition is extraordinary. We see the glamor and violence of hip hop: artists perform on stage, then get in gunfights backstage. We see the underclass of Philly and the conspicuous consumption of New York's 1% (in this week's episode, Cookie's younger sister stated, 'Your kids aren't real, they're rich,' referring to the fact that she was far more concerned about saving her family from drug lords than Cookie could ever need to be. In the same episode, one of Cookie's kids walked around a hip hop video set downing champagne at will). Lucious' father was killed by the Nation, while his finacé was a debutant. Even the music is starting to feature a rift between the radio-ready, Drake-ish offerings of Hakeem ('Drip Drop') and the RnB arabesques of Jamal, inspired by the fact that he lives in the one neighborhood in Brooklyn wholly unaffected by gentrification. Oh, and did I forget to mention the Rihanna-esque character Tiana, this week revealed to be a lesbian? Within the first five minutes of this week's episode? So basically as a subplot?

[Ed. note: I need to point out that 'Kid Fo-Fo,' from previous episodes, is pretty much my favorite fake rapper name ever]

This show has been touted as a combination of Shakespeare's King Lear and the classic 1968 film The Lion in Winter (...and the family name is Lyon, get it?). At first, I thought that these comparisons were facile--all of these share the common theme of three kids, all fighting over an empire. But the more we learn about these characters, the more complicated these relationships become. The Lion in Winter also highlighted the flaws and contradictions in all of its characters--it's almost like a moviefied primetime soap in this respect:

I'm not sure how FOX managed to find a mid-season show that could evoke all of these varied and different responses in only five episodes, all in this modern setting of a hip hop label. There has been some talk that this version of hip hop feels slightly outdated, but I don't think that this is necessarily a criticism; certainly the show makes use of modern media and feels present to me. Like any empire, I'm sure that this one will eventually be toppled by something bigger and better, but until then, look upon this work, ye mighty, and do not despair. The primetime soap is back and it may be better than ever.

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