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'Empire' review: Has potential but pilot falls short

Terrence Howard and Bryshere Gray star in

Terrence Howard and Bryshere Gray star in "Empire." Credit: Fox / Chuck Hodes

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Record company mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) discovers he has ALS and three years to live. So: Which son to leave his company to? Andre (Trai Byers), the treacherous phony with an MBA? Hotheaded but talented Hakeem (Bryshere Gray)? Or gentle and (also) talented soul Jamal (Jussie Smollett), who is gay -- an issue because his father is a hardened homophobe? The decision is complicated by the sudden entrance of Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), his long-estranged wife who just did 17 years hard time. She wants a say in the company future, too. Produced by Lee Daniels ("The Butler") and Danny Strong, with original music by Timbaland.

MY SAY No TV series exists in a vacuum, and "Empire" clearly isn't setting out to be the exception. There are all sorts of antecedents here, from "Dallas" to "Nashville" to "Dynasty" to -- why not! -- even "King Lear," which the creators have repeatedly said casts the longest shadow.

 But there's another long shadow: 2005's "Hustle & Flow," Howard's Oscar-nominated/and winning movie about a pimp who sets out to create his own hip-hop empire but ends up in jail instead. Howard's "DJay" figured that if he could just bottle up all the rage, violence and disappointment of his failed life into one great rhyme with an unforgettable hook...then he could erase his sorry past.

Doesn't quite work out that way unless -- by the miracle of modern TV -- "Empire" is the sequel.

And, in a way, it almost could be: Up-from-the-hood thug uses his singular talent to build a sprawling A&R kingdom but can't escape his old and sordid ties, or even his own mortality. He's dying, knows it, but has no one to turn to to salvage his glittering monument to himself -- largely because of his own failings as a father and his criminal past.

With Howard and Henson (his "Hustle" co-star) in the leads, along with a dash of the Bard to top off the proceedings with a sense that the merciless fates are more in charge of Lucious' life than he is, this almost sounds like the must-watch fantasy sequel of the new year...

Until you actually watch the show, at which point the fantasy crumbles to dust.

This is no "Hustle" sequel and certainly no "King Lear" mashup with "Dynasty" -- which would absolutely be delicious in a campy sort of way. In fact, it's as if "Empire" had too many antecedents, and -- failing to decide upon one -- embraced them all. The result is an interesting idea that (yup, paradoxically) can't quite figure out what that idea actually is -- or where it should go from here.

Both Daniels and Strong are highly regarded big-screen producers but they nevertheless make rookie TV mistakes.  One example: too much expository dialogue of the sort that tells viewers what the story is or telegraphs where it's going.

Another: broad character strokes that give us broad characters instead of nuanced ones.

Another still: flashbacks that either give up too much information or not enough or just clutter up the foreground.   

Here's the biggest failing: "Empire" feels sanitized, toned down and defanged for an audience drifting out of the feel-good, pop music confines of "American Idol." Where's the raw, visceral gut-punch of "Hustle & Flow"? Where's a reasonable facsimile of the brutal world of popular American music circa 2015?

Not here. Not in the opener anyway. 

Can this show locate its cred, or at least the core of that interesting idea? Sure. Howard is a good actor, Henson too, surrounded by veterans and talented newcomers. Smollett's Jamal seems like a particularly promising character.

"Empire" has potential, but don't expect a pilot that does a compelling job of selling that.


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