Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is the middle child and arguably the most talented of the three, but he has the soapiest storyline (and therefore the one with the most potential to go either wonderfully right or horribly wrong): he’s gay, and it causes a huge rift between him and his father — so much so that in a flashback, Lyon, upon noticing a young Jamal dressed in women’s clothes, literally shoves him into a trash can. The youngest son is Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray); he’s also immensely talented (and Lyon’s preferred
), but is too distracted by “bitches and booze.”
How does Lyon decide? Well, thanks to Andre’s smarts and Cookie’s revenge-inspired manipulations, it looks like there’s going to be a war between Jamal and Hakeem, who are essentially their parents’ puppets.
It’s not an original story — even one of the sons is quick to point out the King Lear similarities — but that doesn’t really matter. Empire‘s pilot is so infectious, so deliciously dramatic (“I need you to sing like you are going to die tomorrow, like this is the last song you will ever sing,” Lyon instructs one of his musicians), so squirm-inducing and politically incorrect (“I want to show you a faggot really can run this company,” Cookie sneers at Lyon toward the end of the episode) that you can’t look away. It isn’t a perfect pilot by any means — I’m already wary of which way the Jamal storyline is going, especially since his sexuality is being used as a pawn in the Cookie vs. Lyon game.
But all of the pieces are in place for a great show, even though there are maybe too many pieces jam-packed into the first hour of the series (then again, the pilot episode of a drama will always have a lot of ground to cover, to set up the various themes that will hold the series together). Empire has the potential to be the juiciest soap opera of the year, a musical that succeeds where Nashville failed, a thrilling serial that could become as addictive as Scandal. The music is catchy and often purposeful, helping to add depth to the narrative while showcasing the talent of the players (thankfully, the music scenes also don’t go on too long). The acting is all top notch — you could watch the show solely for Taraji P. Henson and not be disappointed — and everyone embraces the format with more sincerity than irony.
It’s impossible to tell whether Empire — or any show — will deliver on a great pilot, but tomorrow night’s episode makes a strong argument to give it a chance. Maybe it will become one of the highlights of the season, or maybe it will fizzle out quickly; either way, the series begins on an exciting note, and promises to reinvigorating an old story — through the eyes of a group that’s still underrepresented on TV.