(Grantland) – It’s not quite true that I’ve never seen anything like Empire. The centuries are plump with art and popular culture driven by tales of crime and power. Even on network television, not too long ago, there were lurid stories set within the music industry brought to us, in part, by the man who made The Godfather. But I’ve never seen anything that gets away with everything Empire gets away with — murder, basically. I’ve never seen anything on network television this shameless; this overwritten yet perfectly plotted; this ludicrously costumed, art-decorated, choreographed, soundtracked, acted, and directed; this hormonal, this …black. Believe me, at the moment, that’s an achievement against some competition: Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots on the Oprah Winfrey Network; BET’s Being Mary Jane and The Game; Single Ladies on VH1; and, arguably, ABC’s Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. Empire is different.
The show is a soap saga about a thriving record company: Empire records! It’s under siege from the inside and out. Its founder and CEO, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), was a thug who rose from the streets of Philadelphia to the top of the charts, then to the top of a skyscraper. Howard — like the show — operates within some alternate prefab universe of lubricious glamour and lugubrious plotting: It’s Aaron Spelling’s The Godfather. Lucious is newly diagnosed with ALS. He’s also engaged to Empire’s head of A&R, a haughty biracial Swedish speaker named Anika (Grace Gealey). His ascent has come at the expense of his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who took the rap for Lucious on a drug-dealing charge and served 17 years in prison. She’s just been released, wants to better know her three adult sons, and demands a share in a business she helped create. The sons — bipolar Empire CFO Andre (Trai Byers), gay singer-songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett), hotheaded horndog rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) — resent Cookie, until they come to resent Lucious. But no child’s parental loyalty lasts. The tide turning among them can induce seasickness.