Gabourey Sidibe recaps the Empire season premiere, ‘The Devils Are Here’

24 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Empire’ Season 2 premiere recap: #FreeLucious.

UPDATE: In rush nationals ordered by Fox, “Empire” was revised up to a 6.7 in adults 18-49 for its second-season premiere. Spoiler alert: This blog details events in the second season of Empire, which airs at 9pm 23 September on Fox in the US; and goes out on 6 October on E4 in the UK Lee Daniels’ Empire, the Dynasty-esque, Shakespearean melodrama centered around patriarch and music mogul Lucious Lyon, his three sons and (of course) his wife Cookie, is back. You’re reading because you just watched the latest over-the-top episode and you thought, “What the hell was that?!?” as a billion GIFs of face slaps and decapitated heads exploded in your brain. Empire seems to prize artistry, while Lucious is considered a trailblazer in music; not even Cookie Lyon (Taraji P Henson), his ex-wife who feuds with him behind the scenes, can deny his claim that he “took the street mainstream and made the mainstream street”.

In the scene where Rock interrogates Cookie’s cousin while cutting up unidentifiable meat, “Empire” makeup artist Karen Lynn Accattato explained to the Observer that creator Lee Daniels wanted to show Rock eating human flesh. “Lee wanted him to be a cannibal, but I guess it was too much for Fox,” Accattato said. “During the filming for scenes with Chris, Lee Daniels had this inspiration. So every week, instead of a traditional recap, we’ll give you the latest edition of Empire: How Crazy-Awesome Was It?, in which we rate the characters in terms of relative genius/insanity.

The network dominated the opening Wednesday of the season overall, with its “Rosewood,” the only series premiere on the night, benefiting from pre-“Empire” tune-in to deliver solid scores. When we last saw the Lyons in a two-hour season finale, they were a grand mosaic of hot messes – dealing in murder, betrayal and plotting – which ended with Lucious’s arrest and middle son Jamal in control of the company. ABC’s comedy block returned strong, with “The Middle” and “The Goldbergs” on par with last year and “Modern Family” and “Black-ish” a hearty second to “Empire” in the 9 o’clock hour. Its first-season soundtrack, released back in March, met generally positive reviews and beat Madonna’s Rebel Heart for the top spot on the Billboard 200. (“There are enough quality songs that stand alone to potentially draw new fans,” Patrick Ryan wrote for USA Today.) When we met blues rocker Elle Dallas (Courtney Love) during season one, she asks her label boss Lucious to pair her up with Timbaland in order to get her career back on track.

That line feels like a wink to Timbaland being the show’s actual executive music producer, whose past credits include Aaliyah, Missy Elliott and Jay Z. Hip-hop producer Swizz Beats, who is on the show’s music production team, makes the first of several celebrity cameos, setting the tone by asking: “Did you know there’re 1.68 million black men that are being held in mass incarceration in America’s prison system today?

Lucious is still in jail, but pulling the puppet strings at his record label, where he made Jamal (Jussie Smollett) his successor after making peace with his homosexuality. Right now.” Backstage, rising rapper Hakeem Lyon is conflicted about performing at a concert in support of his incarcerated and “guilty” father, who is in federal jail facing murder charges for the death of Bunkie Williams, his longtime bodyguard and Cookie’s cousin. “We should be performing for the brother and sisters that are innocent,” says Hakeem, the youngest Lyon, freshly denied what he was groomed to believe his birthright: becoming head of Empire. Come up with some flesh.’” She added, “We actually went to craft service, grabbed some steak and cut off the fat, and glued it on to the actor’s skin.

Its 9 p.m. episode on finale night in March averaged a 6.9/21 in 18-49 and 17.62 million total viewers (and its two-hour finale night average of 6.5 matched last night’s premiere). Many reviewers have compared two of Empire’s best-known songs to Timbaland’s past work: Good Enough, sung by Jamal Lyon (AKA Jussie Smollett, an actual R&B artist), recalls Justin Timberlake’s What Goes Around … Comes Around; and No Apologies, featuring Jamal and younger brother Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Y Gray, an actual rapper), sounds like Jay Z’s Timberlake-featuring Holy Grail. Hakeem is already wary of Cookie’s plan to score investor Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei) and a chunk of her millions to recapture Empire from Jamal, who is now proxy for Lucious. When Lee Daniels says he wants an effect, you have to get that effect.” Sadly, Frank’s darker tendencies are unlikely to ever see the light of day (despite Cookie referring to him as “Hannibal”), since the character came to a suitably vicious end in the season premiere, after Lucious bought off Frank’s men and had him killed — but not before took the opportunity to twist the knife and told Frank he planned to sign the gangster’s musically-inclined daughter to Empire and “slip her my bone.” Such a charmer.

Compared with last season’s premiere in January, “Empire” on Wednesday was up by 71% in 18-49 (6.5 vs. 3.8) and by 62% in total viewers (16.0 million vs. 9.9 million). Things get interesting when the universe of Empire bleeds together with reality: quick cuts between the crowd, a caged gorilla and police in riot gear. She even dresses up as an ape and rattles her cage to make a point about the justice system “treat[ing] us like animals.” Or maybe, y’know, to prove that she looks good in rubberized faux-fur. André Leon Talley was, true to style, perfect at throwing shade with a “Legally Blonde”-esque, foot stomping Enrique throwback to Cookie’s, “…last season Gucci dress.” Al Sharpton and Don Lemmon both make appearances, but are quickly dismissed by Cookie with eye rolls and snark.

Instead he uses music as therapy, and to see him channel his frustrations about his father being unsupportive (Good Enough), manipulative (Keep Your Money) and controlling (No Apologies) adds heft to the show. And then there was Chris Rock, playing the character of Frank Gathers, the man Cookie snitched on thanks to the long arm of agent Harlow Carter, now in Shawshank with Lucious. It is a system that must be disassembled piece by piece if we are going to live up to those words that we recite with our hands on our hearts: Justice for all. Slowly viewers became invested in Jamal, and therefore Jussie Smollett’s artistic journey with its rebellious streak. “[H]e might become a star with hand-selected tracks that fit a narrative arc, but those likely come closer to capturing his artistry than any classic cover could,” Billboard’s Jason Lipshutz wrote.

Daniels tethers his audience with this conspiratorial wink, bridging audiences with real-life personalties, a kind of doubling that makes the show as relevant as it is entertaining. Conqueror, originally written for featured vocalist Estelle, is the biggest giveaway that Empire airs on Fox – as it sounds like an American Idol winner’s song. Cookie keeps it moving until they are stopped by Lemon and Porsha quips: “I’m not feeling what you did out in Peterson …” The fourth wall breaks, perhaps inviting Black Twitter to reminisce over its widespread public criticism (and jokes) targeted at CNN’s coverage of the protests in Ferguson.

Maybe we should ask Al Sharpton, who shows up at the rally to proclaim, “Mass incarceration is such an important issue!” with his eyes fixed on Cookie’s low-cut fishnet-and-peacock-feather get-up. Season 2’s No Doubt About It, penned by new Empire producer Ne-Yo and featuring Pitbull, feels like an even bigger attempt at mimicking the mainstream rather than leading it. The 2.4 for “Black-ish” matches the show’s highest rating to date opposite an episode of “Empire.” At NBC, “The Mysteries of Laura” (1.2/4 in 18-49, 6.9 million viewers overall) was down 0.3 from its year-ago timeslot premiere but nabbed its top rating since Feb. 25. Anyone who has watched this show knows that no matter what wars are started and what internal family drama is brewing, the Lyon family always circles the wagons when threatened from the outside. Cookie’s cousin, Jamel, asks Lucious for protection when word gets out that Frank Gathers (played by Chris Rock), the drug kingpin who employed both Lucious and Cookie, and whom Cookie served time for, would be joining him behind bars.

After hearing Lucious tell Cookie, “It’s crazy how I can love your ass and hate you at the same moment”, you know it’s done — Chris is dead. Gathers has a vendetta against Lucious—Cookie is the one who sold him out—and orders his goons to kill him: “Make it fast and make it quiet.” But Lucious is always a step ahead and turns the tables on Gathers. Jay Z even inspired parts of Lucious’s “American Dream story”, as a former drug dealer who then learns to survive the music industry by any means necessary. And it’s for the children that Cookie forces Anika to grind with Mimi on the dance floor — and maybe also in Mimi’s bedroom, on her kitchen floor, and in the shower later that night, too. Cookie scores the money from Mimi, hoping to remove Lucious from power, but Mimi double-crosses her with help from Jamal, convincing Lucious to let Mimi help run Empire.

Now that Season 2 is finally here, we got on the phone with Strong to talk through the episode’s big twists, the big themes of the new season, the fallout of the hostile takeover, and so much more. The only emcee regularly featured is youngest Lyon son Hakeem, who raps mostly about dumb fun (Drip Drop) or out of childish spite (Can’t Truss ’Em) under Lucious’s guidance. It’s a hard sell for Rock, who looks like he’s about to burst into a smile at any moment, but he trudges off, stone-faced, to track down Jamal and try to find out if there’s any dirt on Cookie.

Last night’s 1.2 rating/6 share for “Tonight,” whose guests included James Spader, matched the show’s best score on a Wednesday in six months and nearly matched the combined scores of CBS’ “Late Show With Stephen Colbert” (0.8/4) and ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (0.5/2). The episode premieres with quite a statement: the #FreeLucious concert where Cookie descends to the stage dressed as a gorilla in a cage and delivers that big monologue, “How much longer?” Last year you talked about issues that were on your agenda to tackle in the first season.

You’re So Beautiful, Lucious’s classical guitar-featuring ballad for Cookie, gets remade twice, the first time into the piano-soul song where Jamal changes the lyrics to publicly come out. Later, Andre wakes up in a cold sweat after a nightmare where he and his wife, Rhonda, are knee deep in a grave made for attorney and family confidant Vernon. The rest of the show was the usual power plays, money tossin’, brother-on-brother hate crimes, spliced with cunning, Italian murder-mystery plot lines, seemingly pulled straight from a biography of Marie Medici. And with her inside knowledge about Lil Wayne — does she have street contacts that might connect her with Lucious and Cookie’s past? — she’s also the perfect addition to Empire.

It’s hilarious that when Lucious first sees Mimi on television, he immediately asks, “Who’s that lesbian bitch in the red suit?” What tipped him off that she was a lesbian? Was it the menswear-inspired suit, which looked like she’d folded origami trousers and a matching jacket out of Christmas wrapping paper, topping it off with a black ribbon tie?

In true Lyon style, it’s really to woo Mimi Whiteman into investing her kajillions of USD into Empire Entertainment so Cookie can rule as Queen Bee (more on that later). Mimi might spend the episode flirting and dancing with Anika, but I suspect that, eventually, Cookie will use that black ribbon to tie Mimi to her bed. But Hakeem can’t contain his glee and announces that they – Cookie, Andre, Rhonda and Hakeem – with the help of the “investor” have seized a controlling interest that would oust Jamal as president. Jamal reveals his knowledge of the identity of the investor and Mimi spins around in her chair, Dr Evil style, revealing her partnership with Lucious, the incarcerated back-stabber supreme.

Jamal flips on a large screen with Lucious’s video message for the takeover squad: “Game over, bitches!” Cookie and Lucious confront each other, but bitterness over the failed takeover is set aside to deal with the very clear and present danger to Cookie and her sons waged by that “Idi Amin man” AKA Frank Gathers, who looks nothing like the former Ugandan dictator. And how the hell did she manage to strip out of a sweaty, gorilla suit, with hair and makeup on fleek, wearing a Gucci dress (even if it was last season). It’s the kind of luxury hip-hop jail that lets prisoners Skype into Empire’s boardroom meetings, Fed-Ex a severed head, and watch the news on a gold-plated TV.

Lucious seemingly throws Cookie under the bus, yet sitting across from Gathers over a chess board Lucious reveals that Frank’s beef with Cookie is his, and Frank orders his henchmen to kill Lucious only to discover that Lucious bought their loyalty. While Lucious watches Cookie and Mimi get cozy on screen, Jermel tells Lucious that Frank (Chris Rock), a drug lord from Lucious’ old drug-running days, is back behind bars. But Viola Davis gave that amazing speech about how opportunity is needed for equality to happen, and you must feel proud to be part of a show that’s giving those opportunities. The concert had heavy and direct political overtones, references to the Ferguson riots and a speech delivered by Cookie on African-American incarcerations, justice, power and equality. #FreeLucious was trending, the crowd was chanting “How much longer,” and it was all a clever two-for-one PR punch to free Lucious from jail and highlight the long struggles of the African-American community in America. So Frank gets back at Cookie with a Godfather-worthy gangster move: He sends her a dead man’s skull, gift-wrapped in a box — the perfect present for moments when you care enough to send the very best.

Cookie slaps him, but Jamal only responds: “You done now, lady?” Mother now estranged from her favorite child, Jamal closes the door, weeps, then walks away. When Frank tries to make nice with Lucious afterward, Lucious proves his loyalty to Cookie by threatening to sign Frank’s daughter and sleep with her mom. Taraji said this on Ellen yesterday morning, when she talked about how, in 2015, it’s time that we are done with the phrase “the first African-American to do…” I think she’s absolutely right. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic cover story, a real life accounting on mass incarceration and the harm it does to black families, is a great start for the uninformed.

She’s dolled up as if someone raided the former set of “Ugly Betty,” grabbed all of America Ferrera’s clothes and ran arms-swinging down the street to “Empire.” While a marked step-up from last season, she was fluctuating between chic and 1920s architecture stripes. Jamal’s estrangement from Cookie is heartbreaking, it’s my favorite alliance, but it’s surely only a matter of time before Lucious will betray him.

But really, when faced with the prospect of your beloved daughter getting a major-label contract and a shot at massive success, who wouldn’t choose death? Lucious’ showdown with the prosecutor on his case also yields one of the night’s greatest insults: “You think that being a black bitch in cheap shoes who took down hip-hop, that’s your way to victory?

Having taken over Empire, Jamal — suddenly a multi-tasking workaholic — is so busy with business affairs that his album has dropped to #22 on the charts. He’s not performing live often enough to boost sales, as this record was evidently placed in a time machine and released in 1997. (Do album sales even matter anymore?) But when Jamal’s boyfriend puts together an LGBT party and headliner Miss Lawrence asks Jamal to perform a duet, Jamal declines, hoping that a donation to GLAAD will make up for his absence. Between Hakeem’s whining and Cookie’s hostile takeover (drink!), Jamal’s so frustrated with the family that he kicks everyone out of the house for betraying his father, punctuating his anger with some minor crying and some purposeful walking into a different room. Sadly, Jamal tossed him aside in Season 1 like a soggy burrito, even though Dora was in love before the fame and power (“The First Wives Club,” anyone?). Remember that this family is so close, they once sang “You’re So Beautiful” together. (“You’re so beautiful / Give the world a show / Go up-down up-down up-down!”) When you’re bonded by a song that appears to actively promote public incest, the love’s gotta be forever, right?

For those LGBTQ kids out there, it would have been a far better example to show Jamal make time in his schedule for this event rather than simply throw money at them. Most tweetable quote: Nothing too quotable here, but did anyone else catch that Rhonda was wearing a black-ribbon tie in this episode, just like Mimi?

And then when all of a sudden we started getting nominated for various critics’ awards I thought, “Oh I guess we are an awards season contender.” So I’m bummed to say that I got suckered into thinking we were. Cookie throws an opulent party for rich white girl, stocked with music, booze and, obviously, barely-clad young, but not illegally young, ladies for said rich white girl. Nun-attired Anika declines until Cookie feeds her to the Lyons (see what I did there?) and we watch demure, sweater vested Anika break into a twerk in her tight-white skirt.

Sadly, all that twerking didn’t work as Cookie, confident in obtaining rich white girl’s money, finds out unexpectedly that a deal was made that did not include her, but keeps Jamal in power, backed by Lucious and Mimi’s money.

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