In general, I am not a big fan of people who are showoffs, the people who share just that bit too much information or “evidence” that they are “superior” when it really comes down to the luck of the draw, not to anything special. Attention whores. That is not to say that attention whores don’t have talent or that they don’t work hard. In the hit show, Empire, several of the characters have come from humble beginnings, have worked very hard and do have talent. But some of them embrace the glory a bit too much. That said, it wouldn’t be Empire if this were not the case. The Terrence Howard character, Lucious Lyon, head of an entertainment empire called, duh, Empire, dominates the show, his family and the Empire name. Near the end of the first season, he basically refers to himself as a god-in-waiting, and his youngest son Hakeem seems to be following in his footsteps – no questioning or self-awareness. Just arrogance without reflection.
Taraji P. Henson’s character, Cookie Lyon, is someone I did not expect to like. From the advertising around this show, it looked like everyone was egomaniacal, unreasonable and entitled. But Cookie is a woman who feels and knows what is important and knows how to get and protect those important things. She spent almost 20 years in prison for the sake of her family and does not need the flash and glamor because that was never at the heart of what she wanted or fought for. I found this surprisingly compelling.
I also found the idea of the “outsiders” within a family to be very compelling. The eldest son Andre is by far the furthest outside the family circle because he has no artistic talent or vision – he went to business school. In many ways, he has inherited some of the worst traits of both his parents. The ambition, ruthlessness and willingness to lie that characterizes Lucious and a bit of the trigger-temper of his mother (probably in large part due to his struggles with bipolar disorder). His lack of musical talent means he cannot relate to the rest of the family. His mental illness makes him a pariah to his father, who refuses to accept that this illness exists and ostracizes Andre once it’s clear that he can’t just blame “that white woman” (Andre’s wife) for foisting this pretend illness on him. We see Andre struggle the most and spin the furthest out of control.
The middle son, Jamal, by far the most musically gifted, wants to come out as gay, and the stigma of this is too much for the patriarch, Lucious, to take. Everyone else in the family accepts. Most of society accepts. No one really cares. But the father has lorded his prejudice over Jamal his entire life… but Jamal does finally assert himself, and comes out on top because ultimately this musical thread is what ties the family together – and keeps those on the outside from really taking part (which keeps happening to poor Andre). Jamal is also the least entitled. He does not have to work as hard to come up with genius, but he works hard nevertheless.
Finally there is the youngest son, Hakeem, who, as mentioned, is like a cookie cutter of his father. But that does not by any means make him the favorite. In some cases, he is favored because of these similarities, but Hakeem does not want to put in the hard work, wants to just be famous and take over Empire but the depth and staying power don’t seem to be there. What he lacks in natural talent, he tries to make up for in flash. This is also not to say he has no talent – it’s just that it does not seem to flow from him the way it does from Jamal.
With these strong characters – not always written or acted perfectly or particularly well – and interesting dynamics – even when they are soap operatic at best, I found the first season entertaining enough to keep watching when the show resumes for season two.