After previewing the sloppy yet moderately intriguing pilot for Empire, a drama about a dysfunctional music-business family, there's one reason I'm giving it a shot. Cookie. Although Terrence Howard is billed as the star (he plays the rotten record label magnate Lucious Lyon), Taraji P. Henson is a bigger draw as the vicious, on-fleek ex-wife and drug lordess slash music maven by his side.
Grading on the pilot curve, Empire (which premieres tonight, co-produced by Lee Daniels) falls somewhere in the three-episodes-or-I'm-out category. While the high stakes concept immediately hooks you, the show has the potential to be bogged down by kitsch. A former rapper and now Asshole-In-Charge at his label, Empire Entertainment, Howard's Lucious can most succinctly be described as scum. The pilot opens with him in a recording studio with fellow executives, pushing one of his artists to sing beyond her limits. "I need you to sing like you are going to die tomorrow," he says icily. "Show me your soul in this music." Music execs are designed to be motivationally sleazy, so Howard hits that mark and then some.
Lucious isn't exactly an antihero I'd root for, though, even after we learn about his incurable disease. Post-diagnosis, he initiates a rat race between his three sons—Andre (the businessman), Jamal (a singer, who's gay) and Hakeem (the juvenile-delinquent rapper)—to see who should run Empire when he's gone. Except.... he'd rather not have his gay son at the helm. There's one flashback that shows how despicable Lucious is, but I won't ruin it. He's the source of the madness. Cookie is the light.
We're introduced to her as she's released from prison after a 17-year sentence, decked in the outfit she entered with: a white fur coat, mini-dress, doorknocker earrings and a high ponytail. "Cookie's coming home," she says, dramatically.
Rather than exist as a mere accessory to her ex-husband, Cookie demands a salary and A&R position at Empire, given that she helped launch the label with $400,000 in drug money. She threatens Lucious' power and exploits her influence. She's a complicated woman with questionable maternal instincts and an especially sour relationship with Hakeem, who was the most affected by her absence. (During a post-prison visit with him, he calls her a bitch and she beats him with a broom stick.)
Cookie is too funny to be completely unlikeable. I'm leery of how they'll develop her as a black female villain, but Henson should bring as much subtlety to the role as she does in episode one. In a Chicago Sun-Times interview, she described the character as both "ride-or-die" and "the ultimate caregiver":
"I understand being in a situation where you feel like that's your only hope for your family. Minimum wage job? It's not gonna take care of three hungry kids. So is it good what they did? Oh, absolutely not. Selling drugs is not a good thing. But what they did was they broke a cycle. Their three sons will never know what the hood is. It was horrible what they did, but she did a crime, she served her time, and now her kids will never understand what it is to live in the hood."
The portrayal would border on caricature if it wasn't for Cookie's/Henson's soft side. Her presence lightens the mood. Even with the over-the-top material here, Taraji tends to bring a certain burst of energy to her roles and this is no different. There's heavy potential for a sweeping character arc with Cookie, though it's the homophobic Lucious and his personal growth that's likely to make the bigger impact, storywise.
I wouldn't be surprised if Cookie is the one who ends up taking over the label. The showseems like it'll be as soap-y as Scandal in terms of hamminess. Its Facebook page includes tag lines like, "They didn't choose the glam life, the glam life chose them." This could be a good thing? As with any pilot, that's up in the air. Watch the first episode, if only to see Cookie strutting around like a boss.
Image via Fox