Empire caused quite a stir when it debuted on Fox as the more mature, hip-hop-centric, older sibling to Glee. It still had a lot of the melodrama that drew crowds to Glee, but it also boasted a far more mature outlook on the state of music in our modern age and it had Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson headlining its cast. Right from the start it had a lot of promise in its corner, and from there it managed to make the most of it in many ways, while still managing to underwhelm expectations in others by taking the easy way out on a number of plotpoints. As such, Empire truly was the spiritual successor to Glee: so much raw potential that the writing didn’t quite know how to handle it. That indecision makes the first season feel like a mini-series that got picked up for a second run, forcing the writers to reverse some of the bolder decisions from the pilot in favor of choices that would add to the premise’s longevity.
The foundation for Empire’s first season isn’t particularly new territory as it starts with Empire record label patriarch Lucious Lyon (Howard) learning that has MLS and just a short time to live. With the clock ticking, he informs his three children that one of them will soon be selected as his primary heir and head of the label. For Andre (Trai Byers), the eldest, business-minded son, the announcement serves to remind him that despite his experience handling the company’s financials and business matters, he’ll always be something of a disappointment in his father’s eyes for not having any musical talent. That puts Lucious’s two musically gifted sons, the brash, fame-drunk Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and the far more modest but gay Jamal (Jussie Smollett), front and center in their father’s plans. It seems like the company is theirs for the taking until their mother Cookie (Henson), fresh out of prison on parole, arrives on their collective doorstep looking for her slice of the company that she helped build.
Along with Cookie comes a whole bunch of memories and family issues that makes Lucious Lyon reevaluate how he’s managing his company, which son he really wants to rely on, and how much he actually owes Cookie for handling the problems of their past that left him free to become the rap superstar turned mogul. As the first season builds, alliances among the family members rise and fall as different choices from their pasts (or even just earlier in the season) come back to haunt them and cast doubt on whatever they said to strike a deal.
For the most part, Empire handles the complex politicking of mixing family with business well, even if at points it feels like it’s going back and forth over the same issue to generate some cheap melodrama or keep a character busy while the writers wait for a moment to bring them back into the main scuffle. Sometimes that means sending a character into a bi-polar depressive state, and at other times it means a character reverses his aversion to homosexuality overnight because that’s what’s required to make a business decision make sense. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but the twists, turns, and rivalries of the season work just well enough to keep it moving along. And again, part of this problem feels like it’s born of a decision to convert a single-run mini-series into a full-fledged series. That probably wasn’t the case, but there’s a definite quality to the story for the first season and its elements that makes it feel as if it was intended as a look at a family as it dealt with the death of its patriarch and the ensuing power struggle.
Finally, perhaps the most notable feature of Empire is its occasional musical numbers, which are executed with varying levels of strength. Is it strange when a guy breaks into song for a lullabye only to hear autotuning on his vocals? Yes it is, and moments like that are also some of the weakest excuses for breaking into song. But it’s worth bearing those lesser instances if it means we get to the duets between Jamal and Hakeem (who are infinitely better on the screen when performing together than when they’re doing their solo gigs) and Jamal and Lucious (in what is easily the best song of the season). The musical numbers are used rather sparingly but well, most of the time.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
The biggest extras in this set are the uncut musical performances of the season's songs, but we also get featurette's on the series' style and music, along with an audio commentary on the pilot.
"Empire: The Complete First Season" is on sale September 15, 2015 and is rated tv-ma. Drama. Directed by Lee Daniels, Sanaa Hamri, Danny Strong. Written by Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Joshua Allen, Ilene Chaiken. Starring Taraji P Henson, Terrence Howard.