Fox's 'Empire': soapy fun, with music

Terrence Howard (left) and Philadelphia rapper Bryshere Gray, who is making his acting debut, in the Fox series "Empire." (CHUCK HODES / Fox)

* EMPIRE. 9 tonight, Fox 29.

"I NEED YOU to sing like you are going to die tomorrow," says the music mogul to the singer in the opening scene of Fox's new "Empire."

Sounds like something a celebrity judge might say to a finalist on "American Idol," which returns for its 14th season at 8 tonight, likely with a few contestants who might have been learning to talk when it first hit the air.

The singing competition that rivals once called "the Death Star" may have lost its ratings mojo in recent seasons, but Fox is hoping that an "Idol" lead-in is still powerful enough to help its hip-hop themed "Empire" strike a chord with viewers.

I hope so, too, because the first hour, directed by its co-creator, West Philadelphia's Lee Daniels ("The Butler," "Precious"), is good, soapy fun.

And, with Simon Cowell now only a wistful, acid-tongued memory on "Idol," we need someone else in the music business whom we can love to hate.

Enter Lafayette Hill's Terrence Howard as Lucious (with a "Loo," not a "Lush") Lyon, the up-from-the-mean-streets-of-Philly chief of Empire Entertainment, who dresses with panache, refers to the president of the United States as "Barack" and is preparing to take his company public.

Lucious' rags-to-riches tale gets raggedy fast. Not only does the former drug dealer turn out to be a homophobic father who insists that his gay son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), could "choose to sleep with women" if he weren't so stubborn, but he's built his hip-hop empire on the "sacrifice" of his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, "Person of Interest"), whose $400,000 in drug money got him started and whose 17 years in prison passed without a visit from Lucious, who apparently let her take the fall for both of them.

Cookie's explosive return, coupled with the company's looming public offering and some worrying medical news, might be drama enough, but Daniels and co-creator Danny Strong ("Game Change," "The Butler") are also working off a "King Lear" theme, with Lucious telling his three sons that only one can inherit his kingdom and that he's getting ready to make a decision.

Besides Jamal, a soulful singer-songwriter, there's Andre (Trai Byers), a nonmusician with an MBA and a savvy schemer of a wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), and Lucious' favorite, Hakeem (Philly's Bryshere Gray, a/k/a Yazz the Greatest), a rapper who's so far shown more interest in partying than performing.

(Behind the scenes, Timothy "Timbaland" Mosley is writing and producing songs for the show.)

"I need one of you Negroes to man up and lead," Lucious tells his sons in a speech that appears to signal that broadcast standards will trump hip-hop's, at least where the N-word's concerned. ("Bitch" is apparently not off the table.)

Henson is a force to be reckoned with as Cookie, who's more than just a woman scorned: Her eye for talent may be at least as sharp as her ex's, and the flashbacks suggest that without her his first step into the music world might have been his last.

Any sense of Philly, by the way, is pretty much limited to those flashbacks, which portray the city as a place to be escaped. And, despite its numerous local ties, which also include showrunner Ilene Chaiken ("The L Word"), who's from Elkins Park, "Empire" is filmed in Chicago.

"Empire" isn't a subtle show, nor does it pretend to be: Characters say things like, "I'm here to get what's mine" and "Music saved my life."

But amid all the prime-time soap-opera posturing, there are moments that feel like something more, as Lucious and Cookie catch up, or Jamal and Hakeem collaborate.

By the end of the first hour, the seeds for at least a season's worth of conflict have been planted, but I'd have liked to have seen at least another episode to see if that's all there's going to be.

Family dramas first need families, and "Empire" might be at its most compelling when it shows the enduring bonds between the members of this contentious clan, not just the breaks.




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