Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), founder of Empire Entertainment, has been diagnosed with what we will subsequently discover to be ALS, and has a few years left to live, presumably depending on contracts and show renewals. Although he’s taking Empire public he still wants control of it to pass to one of his three sons, insofar as you can do that with listed companies, not that anyone seems troubled by it.
So the sons – “we King Lear now?” – line up, looking for paternal approval. Studious business school grad Andre, already CFO at Empire, is the obvious successor, but he’s not musical, and Lucious thinks there’s an argument for having a celebrity in charge. Which, if he follows through on that, means either talented singer Jamal or blingy rapper Hakeem, who on the evidence of this episode you wouldn’t trust to run an errand, never mind a company. But Jamal’s gay, and Lucious really doesn’t like that; there is, in fact, a harrowing flashback to an incident in Jamal’s childhood when Lucious threw him in a bin, apparently something which happened to the show’s creator/writer/director/exec producer Lee Daniels.
The episode achieves lift-off, though, when Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie walks out of prison and all the way to the Emmys, if Taraji P. Henson can keep up this level of performance. Cookie’s been inside for 17 years for drug-dealing; it was her (drug) money which originally funded Empire; and she wants what’s hers. Specifically, half of Empire. She doesn’t get that, but she does get to manage Jamal. And she’s worked out that Andre, as suggested by “that white girl”, his wife Rhonda, is trying to drive Jamal and Hakeem apart so that he can pick up the pieces and take charge of Empire. (Andre’s wife is the only significant Caucasian presence on the show so far, in fact. Otherwise every character is African-American, which is refreshing and welcome.)
Adding to Lucious’s problems is his assistant (?) Bunkie, someone else who’s known Lucious from his early days, but who hasn’t really kept pace; he’s in debt to bookies and demanding money or he’ll reveal details of Lucious’s dubious past. If anything about this episode didn’t work, it’s Lucious’s reaction to that.
That aside, though, I thought this was great fun, and I enjoyed it enormously. And the original music’s good, as you’d expect with Timbaland in charge: the raps could do with tightening up, but there’s a nice mid-paced soul song by Jamal, ‘Good Enough’, about his relationship with Lucious; and ‘Live In The Moment’, by Jamal and Hakeem, which with a better hook would have comfortably fitted onto a Michael Jackson album during his imperial period.