TV's 'Empire' arrives with much promise

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On "Empire," Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) visits Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) to claim her share of the company, a recording empire. (CHUCK HODES / Fox)

This has been quite a week if you like your television served up with a distinct musical accompaniment.

First there was Galavant, ABC's period parody in which knights and knaves kept breaking out in song. (OK, it was pretty much the same bland show tune repeated over and over with slightly different lyrics.)

Now comes Empire, a drama about a modern musical dynasty that is resonantly  accented with authentic hip hop and R&B sounds, thanks to its musical directors, Timbaland and Philly producer Jim Beanz.

Make no mistake, the Lyons of Empire Entertainment are a dynasty, in every sense, including the prime-time variant.

As soon as Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), fresh out of the slammer and dressed in full Mary J. Blige regalia, bursts into the executive suite of Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and demands half the company, you know you're in Carrington territory. As in Blake, Alexis, and Krystle Carrington of the echt-'80s soap Dynasty.

Except that the crew in Empire (Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox29) started from the bottom. It turns out that the nest egg that launched this show-biz conglomerate came from drug dealing. Cookie took the fall for the bust, and Lucious went legit with the proceeds.

Now she's back, estranged from her husband and their three grown sons, and intent on getting what's hers - with compound interest.

This would be worth watching just for the cage match between Henson and Howard (who last worked together in 2005's Hustle & Flow). It's a blast to see two such dynamic actors tearing up the scenery together so boisterously. It's a demolition derby with Emmy written all over it.

Even their flashback scenes are electric. Who besides Howard could carry off a black neon gang flydanna and a paisley cravat in the same episode and make them both look good? Henson is scary good in this role, right down to the fingernails that look like a raptor's talons.

Empire doesn't put all the weight on its two stars. It works from a complex and crowded canvas created by filmmaker Lee Daniels and writer Danny Strong (who also collaborated on The Butler).

Strong is a doozy of a double threat. In addition to an impressive screenwriting resume that includes HBO's Game Change and the Hunger Games: Mockingjay films, he's long been one of TV's catchiest character actors, with recurring roles on such shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Mad Men, Justified, and Girls.

The propulsive premise of Empire is that Lucious, diagnosed with a fatal illness, is trying to settle on which of his sons will inherit the boardroom. One of the boys likens him to King Lear, which seems like an overreach, but the situation does make for good drama.

The oldest, Andre (Trai Byers), would seem the most logical candidate. A buttoned-down businessman, he's ambitious, sober, and hardworking. And maybe because of those attributes, he seems to bore his father to death.

The second son, Jamal, is a sensitive and very talented singer-songwriter in the John Legend mold. But he has two strikes against him: He's gay, and he's not interested in the commercial aspects of music.

As he complains to Cookie, "It messes with the purity of the sound." She responds, "Yeah, you so pure only a couple hundred white kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco even know your stuff." Jamal is played by Jussie Smollett, the older brother of actress Jurnee Smollett (Friday Night Lights).

Finally, there's the youngest, Hakeem, a charismatic and combative rapper lost in the ostentatious excesses of the hip-hop game. His fiery, take-no-prisoners temperament makes him Daddy's sentimental favorite.

Making his acting debut, Bryshere Gray does a surprisingly convincing job in this pivotal role. Gray is better known by his rap name, Yazz the Greatest, under which the young Philadelphian has performed at the Roots Picnic, Made in America, and other events.

The supporting cast, including Gabourey Sidibe, Malik Yoba, Antoine McKay, and Grace Gealey, all represent well. Courtney Love and Naomi Campbell are due to make appearances during this 12-episode run.

It should be mentioned that the senior brother, Andre, maintains something of a secret weapon: his white, Lady Macbethish wife (Kaitlin Doubleday). She manages to sow seeds of jealousy between the other formerly tight siblings.

Boosted by an extensive promotional campaign, the show is being given a flashy launch by Fox, which is airing it with limited commercials right after the season debut of its heaviest hitter, American Idol.

The network clearly has high hopes for Empire, and it's easy to see why, given its glitzy cast and milieu.

But it can be foolhardy to judge a show such as this based purely on the pilot. The focus and tone could shift and drift any number of ways in subsequent weeks. But whether it rises or falls, Empire is off to a sensational start.

 


TV REVIEW

Empire

9 p.m. Wednesday on Fox29


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4875 @daveondemand_tv