Empire: The Complete First Season Blu-ray Review: Birth of a Dynasty

The series marks the triumphant return of the nighttime soap opera to network TV.
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The pilot episode of this series is a huge mess. Stuffed with a random assortment of seemingly unrelated scenes, frequent poorly executed time jumps, and enough laughable dialogue to qualify it as a comedy, it’s amazing that the show ever got picked up for full series. Thankfully, it did, and quickly became “TV’s biggest smash of the past decade” according to the cover art of this new Blu-ray set. The story of music industry titan Lucious Lyon and his highly dysfunctional family makes for great soap opera moments that should ensure the show’s continued success for a few years to come.

Much digital ink has been spilled this year describing the show as a new Dynasty, and it’s a fair approximation given the premise of ultra-rich family members doing terrible things to each other. In the Empire universe, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the sun, while his ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and their three sons are the planets that rotate around him. All other players who come into any of their orbits are largely insignificant satellites who should expect to eventually burn out or transfer to a different orbit.

Where Empire differs from the idle rich of Dynasty is that these nouveau riche family members are all talented and actually do meaningful work, albeit in different aspects of the music industry. Lucious is the ex-recording star and current head of his music empire, Cookie has a great ear for talent and production, while son Andre is a shrewd businessman, son Hakeem is a rising rapper, and son Jamal is a futuristic R&B artist.

Unfortunately, they all have extreme character flaws and deeply dysfunctional relationships with each other, which of course makes for great drama. Lucious always manages to put himself first at the expense of his family, Cookie is still finding her place in the world after 17 years in prison, Andre is violently bipolar, Hakeem has deep mommy issues that lead him into the arms of a girlfriend twice his age (Naomi Campbell), and Jamal is gay, still a touchy proposition in the urban music world. These characteristics generate most of the heat in the first season, with plenty left over for Season Two.

This being a show about the music industry, music is very much a part of every episode, with new compositions regularly arriving from the show’s executive music producer Timbaland, along with guest producers including Jim Beanz and Raphael Saadiq. The songs are usually earmarked for the two performing sons, with varying results. Bryshere Y. Gray’s Hakeem sounds very much like currently popular rappers, which isn’t exactly a good thing as he has a monotone, uncharismatic delivery of the song’s very clich├ęd rhymes. Thankfully, Jussie Smollett’s Jamal is massively talented as a genre-defying singer/songwriter in the obvious vein of Frank Ocean. It’s not clear how much is Smollett vs. his producers, but he’s so convincing that he seems poised for legitimate music stardom if he wants it.

The show’s over-the-top nature makes it ripe for derision, with each ludicrously overwrought moment actually punctuated by cheesy soap opera music cues just in case we weren’t already aware of the preposterous nature of every conniving plot development. Henson’s Cookie is clearly a memorable character, but so ghetto fabulous that she borders on parody at nearly every turn. Likewise, the three brothers are so diametrically different that it’s inconceivable that they’re supposed to be related. Still, the show is all good fun and definitely entertaining for anyone willing to put their brain on pause and just enjoy its unbelievable machinations.

On Blu-ray, the image quality of the episodes is predictably superb, while the sound is delivered in a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that ensures every “drip drop” is felt. Bonus features are robust for a TV series, highlighted by in-depth looks at the show’s fashion and music. The music is explored even further with uncut musical performances of a handful of the show’s songs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m wrapping this up to tune in to the Season Two premiere right now to see how Lucious gets out of his latest mess. Well played, Empire.

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