Empire Wednesdays, 9 p.m., Fox. (Premieres January 7.)
Early in the first episode of Empire, when hip-hop mogul Lucius Lyon (Terrence Howard) announces to his three sons that they will be competing to succeed him as head of his entertainment company, one son scoffs at the tactic straight out of King Lear, but the show itself is more soap opera than Shakespeare. Co-created by filmmaker Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), who also directed the pilot, Empire is as overheated and melodramatic as Daniels’ movies, with the same unconvincing self-importance. Howard is too understated as Lucius, who rose up from the streets to become a multi-millionaire businessman (and who is hiding a terminal illness, the real reason he’s grooming a successor), and Lucius’ three sons aren’t particularly compelling, either.
They’re all overshadowed by Taraji P. Henson as Lucius’ ex-wife (and the mother of his kids) Cookie, who’s released from prison after 17 years and decides to claim what she believes is her rightful share in the business. Henson goes way over the top with the part of a scheming soap-opera villain, but by the end of the first episode, she’s the only real reason to tune in again (the decent original songs by Timbaland only go so far). Daniels and co-creator Danny Strong (who wrote The Butler) clumsily try to throw in some social commentary with their salaciousness, but it’s delivered with the same lack of subtlety (and none of the entertainment value) as Henson’s performance. When the show wants to point out that there’s too much homophobia in the black community, Lucius’ gay singer-songwriter son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) says, “There’s too much homophobia in the black community.”
Having a prominent gay character on a hip-hop drama is still a step in the right direction, though, and Empire’s characters might develop greater nuance as the show progresses. For now, it’s a trashy soap with one entertaining performance.