Scoop: EMPIRE on FOX

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Lee Daniels wants to expose homophobia in TV show ‘Empire’.

In November 2014, Bill Wyman catalogued six different occasions on which actor Terrence Howard has been accused of attacking women. “Empire,” a new drama on Fox about a family-run hip-hop label, is the latest entry in a category for which I am an unrepentant sucker, the serial drama about any genre of music. The headline of the piece was “Will Reporters Finally Ask Terrence Howard About His Alleged Violence Against Women?” On Saturday, at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour in Pasadena, California, someone did. Only fifteen years ago, my tribe was forced to endure multiple seasons of a show before a single “very special musical episode” emerged, like a prize in a box of Cracker Jacks. Then came “American Idol,” in 2002, and its success kicked open the door for scripted alternatives—among them “Glee” (pop), “Smash” (Broadway), “Nashville” (country), “Bunheads” (classical, standards, and pop), and the upscale HBO option “Treme” (New Orleans jazz).

Night Shyamalan-helmed upcoming miniseries Wayward Pines, in which Howard plays a key role, the network “is very much in the Terrence Howard business,” as Philadelphia Daily News TV critic Ellen Gray pointed out in Saturday morning’s Q&A session with Fox CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden. The series had the unusual feat of growing in viewership from its premiere week to its second, compelling Fox to quickly give the go-ahead to a second season. Gray sketched out the accusations against Howard, before asking the Fox honchos, “When you’re doing casting, does this come up as part of the conversation?” I want to start by saying that we’ve been working with Terrence now for just about a year, and it’s been a fantastic experience. During the show’s first episode, Lyon learns he has a fatal disease and is battling with his just-released-from-jail wife over which of their three sons will take over their music empire.

Of the survivors, “Glee” is finally on an upswing, while “Nashville” has devolved from an enjoyable showcase for Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere into a meditation on how men with goatees unexpectedly become fathers. During a flashback, Lyon is shown stuffing Jamal into a garbage can when he sees the boy trying on his mother’s high heels. “I’m glad that I can show the African-American community that this is what you’re doing to your son, this is what you’re doing to your nephew, this is what you’re doing to the kid down the street,” Howard said. At a time the movie industry is under fire for its commitment to diversity — only white actors received nominations when last week’s Oscar contenders were announced — “Empire” is seen as making strides in that area. We cast Terrence because our executive producers, Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, and Brian Grazer, felt that he was the best actor for that particular role.

Henson, the actress who plays Lucious’ wife Cookie, said entertainment executives take notice when shows dominated by minority cast members make money. Henson, who plays Cookie Lyon, a woman who struts out of prison in a leopard-print dress and a white fur coat—the same outfit, she explains, that she wore on her way in.

Gray followed up by pointing out that the allegations against Howard have “been reported pretty widely for much longer than since December.” How could they not have been aware? By the final scene of the pilot, “Empire” suggests an arc that’s just what a drama-club junkie craves: an escalating series of songwriting collaborations, recording-studio breakdowns, onstage battles, music-business dirty tricks, and, ideally, some sort of insane awards ceremony at the end, all satin and payback. The show is a pleasure in another way, too: since it’s set in a largely African-American industry, it has an easy, organic platform on which to play out stories about race and class, ones that rarely show up on network TV. The plot is urban “King Lear”: given a diagnosis of A.L.S., Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, with an impressive conk) must decide which of his three sons—the icy businessman, the shambolic party boy, or the sweet gay genius—will inherit Empire Enterprises.

Later in the day, Howard and the rest of the core cast of Empire gathered for a spirited panel, during which Jethro Nededog of the Wrap offered Howard a chance to respond to the question that had earlier been posed to the Fox bosses. When she meets his new woman, she purrs “Boo boo, kitty.” Along with Kerry Washington, Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, Gabrielle Union, Gabourey Sidibe, and Octavia Spencer, Henson is part of an exodus of black actresses from film to television, many of whom have found juicier, more varied, and more central roles than are available in Hollywood. Howard didn’t address the allegations directly, but he said: A lot of things that I got involved with in younger days, in the earlier days, was the product of my environment, the product of not knowing how to deal with frustration, the product of not knowing who Terrence Howard is, you know. In hoop earrings the size of manhole covers, Henson charges up the show with a wild, infectious brio, turning hackneyed lines into platinum zingers. 50 Cent, the rap star who created “Power,” a series on the Starz network, has complained that “Empire” is a ripoff, and it’s true that both shows feature an African-American twist on the established antihero cable genre, with gangster patriarchs who balance legitimate companies (in “Power,” it’s a night club) with a history in the drug trade. But, while “Power” is comparatively solemn about its protagonist’s tormented double life, a grim fantasy of bad-boy authority, “Empire” is as loosey-goosey as summer stock: for all his threats, Lucious feels about as menacing as Christopher Walken’s Captain Hook.

The cast is game, including Sidibe as Lucious’s assistant, Trai Byers as Andre, the most bourgie (and also the most frequently shirtless) son, and Bryshere Gray (the rapper known as Yazz the Greatest) as Hakeem, the one drawn to “bitches and booze.” The standout, however, is Jussie Smollett, who underplays the gay son, Jamal, with mellow confidence. “Empire” isn’t the first TV show to feature a gay hip-hop artist: the underwatched but excellent “The L.A. And this present moment, to have a show that’s being that’s being held as a beautiful breakthrough piece, having a wonderful opportunity to have this cast, I don’t think they took any of that stuff into consideration. Complex,” a few years back, featured a memorable and textured story about a rapper named Kaldrick King, whose romantic relationship turned abusive when he panicked over appearing less than “hard” to his fans. “Empire” seems, at first, to be on a more conventional narrative path: Jamal is bright, talented, and decent—a credit to his sexuality. I think they looked at the talent and the power of right now and this moment and how people have grown and where they’re going to, and I embrace that, and I’m so thankful to them for doing that. He’s in a committed relationship with a loving boyfriend, who is Latino. (Cookie, like Sue Sylvester on “Glee,” is the show’s cathartic mouthpiece, spouting a mixture of real talk and slurs: when she’s not dismissing her light-skinned competition as “little Halle Berry,” she calls the boyfriend “La Cucaracha” and her son “faggot,” at once rudely and affectionately.) But the relationship between Jamal and Cookie gets more interesting when she decides to make him famous. “You’re so pure, only a couple hundred white kids in Brooklyn and San Francisco even know your stuff,” she scoffs.

The climax is an affecting number called “Good Enough,” which Jamal sings over eighties-era flashbacks of his father dumping him in a garbage can—an incident reportedly taken from Daniels’s life. The sequence could have been bathetic, but it carries surprising emotional weight, and the conversation that follows hints at a fascinating possibility: less a conventional coming-out story than an exploration of how Jamal’s gayness and his history of abuse might be co-opted and marketed, a new brand for a new era.

With any melodrama, it’s impossible to tell, early on, if it can keep the pilot lit. (All of my favorite musical shows had exciting opening episodes, after all.) The second installment is more scattershot, although there’s a fabulously anarchic sequence in which a drunk Hakeem is filmed in a viral video calling Obama a sellout. (When Lucious phones to apologize, the President hangs up on him.) Jamal’s musical torment feels a notch more manipulative: as he croons, “Tell the truth, tell the truth,” tears stream down his face. But there is an audaciousness to that musical montage, too, which draws parallels between the son’s shame at his sexuality and his father’s history in poverty. It gambles on a high-risk blend of kitsch, corn, and cool. “Streets ain’t made for everybody,” as Cookie puts it. “That’s why they made sidewalks.” Amazon has plastered the New York City subway system with ads for “Mozart in the Jungle,” using imagery so baffling that no one can figure out what the show’s about. More specifically, it’s an ensemble drama about the fictional New York Symphony, where an elderly bad-boy conductor, played by Malcolm McDowell, is stepping down to make way for a younger, hairier maestro: Rodrigo, who is loosely based on the real-life conductor Gustavo Dudamel, and is played by the fabulous Gael García Bernal as a sort of feral Bambi.

The series, created by Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman, and Alex Timbers, is adapted from the oboist Blair Tindall’s confessional memoir, which painted a bleak portrait of an élite industry that dooms most of its performers to near-penury. The first episode approaches this material from a heightened, cable-comedy angle, emphasizing the salacious side of Tindall’s tell-all, as if it were a violist tugging down her scoop-necked black dress. Yet the silliness can be infectious, too, as with a legitimately wild variation on a rap battle—a booze-soaked party game in which an oboist and a flutist spin a wooden wheel, challenging one another to ever more aggressive feats of musical one-upmanship.

But it calms down, too, building on an appealing set of characters, including a hard-bitten middle-aged oboist, played by Debra Monk, and a maestro mistress, played by Saffron Burrows. Bernadette Peters plays the savvy corporate leader who has to “handle” her unpredictable hire; Lola Kirke (Jemima Kirke’s languid sister) is an ingénue, Hailey. In one of the best scenes, Rodrigo, taking a limo across the Brooklyn Bridge, gets intoxicated by the metallic clatter around him. “Do you hear that!” he says, gazing into Hailey’s eyes. “Ba-tum-ta-tum-ta-tum-ta-ta—yeah. The snare drums.” He puts his arm around her and savors the whirr of cars: “The strings.” As the two lean their heads to the side, they close their eyes, unafraid to seem foolish; like the show itself, they’re on the side of pleasure, whatever form it takes. ♦

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