Empire arrived in the UK with a huge amount of buzz after smashing ratings in the US earlier in the year. The musical drama from Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) picked up a huge amount of critical buzz and increased its ratings every week during its first season run in the US. Empire tells the story of the Lyon family and their record label Empire. Patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) announces that he will let one of his three sons – Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Andre (Trai Byers) take over the label after finding out that he has a fatal illness. Keeping his illness quiet, Lucious pits his children against one another and is surprised when his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) arrives back in town after being released from prison.
Empire: The Complete First Season is a fast-paced soapy drama with outrageous plot twists, plenty of cat-fighting and some superb music. Once you get past the frequent big name guest stars – Naomi Campbell, Rita Ora, Mary J. Blige, Raven Symone and Courtney Love are just some of the familiar faces – Empire is an enjoyable, sudsy romp that you don’t need to take too seriously. The show is pure escapism and it’s easy to get caught up in the Lyons’ world.
Lucious has a different relationship with each of his children; Andre works at Empire already but has no musical talent, aspiring rapper Hakeem is his clear favourite, and he’s embarrassed by Jamal who is an openly gay singer. Once Cookie arrives in town she takes Jamal under her wing and tries to use him to get back at her ex-husband. She also wants to take what she’s entitled to in terms of money invested in Empire and is less than impressed to see Lucious cosying up with his colleague Anika (Grace Gealey).
A big part of Empire’s appeal is the music. With Timbaland on production duties, the show was always going to have a musical impact but no one could have predicted just how popular the songs would become. As you would expect the music straddles R&B and hip-hop but there’s a pop edge to some of the numbers as well as a whole lot of soul. Jussie Smollett who plays Jamal shines the brightest and often gets the best songs such as Good Enough and No Apologies.
It becomes clear very early on in the season that the breakout star is Taraji P. Henson. She packs so much attitude and swagger into her performance that you can’t help but root for her. Her actions may not always be admirable but it never stops you from wanting her to come out on top. She also is given the best lines and steals every single scene she’s in. Terrence Howard puts in a strong performance too as the volatile head of the Lyon family. His chemistry with Henson is fantastic and the screen lights up when they’re on it together.
Special features on the release include a series of music videos, 11 uncut music performances, an audio commentary on the pilot episode and a featurette on the music in the show.
Empire is a guilty pleasure if we ever saw one. It doesn’t quite live up to the critical-acclaim and buzz it’s received but it’s an undeniably addictive and frothy show. Mix into that the fantastic music and you’ve got a solid musical drama. The second season of the show arrives this autumn and it’s got more episodes but we fully expect it to build on this first season and best it.