“The season’s most unexpected hit” — that was the party line earlier this year when Fox’s music-industry Dallas starting posting blockbuster-level viewer numbers and quietly begin to revolutionize primetime TV. But in retrospect, you could say that Empire is really television’s most expected smash hit. That’s not to say that anyone specifically predicted that this series would become the most buzzed-about broadcast-network show in years. But compare it to the other two shows on TV right now that come closest to being old-school monoculture phenomena. Game of Thrones is a gory, sprawling dark fantasy based on a series of nerdcore novels about the physical and moral horror of violence. The Walking Dead is an equally bloody show, based on equally geeky source material, with essentially the opposite premise: As long as they’re already dead, violence is awesome.
Now look at Empire: A primetime hip-hop soap opera about one of America’s most popular art forms, starring a top-flight cast, soundtracked by Timbaland, and boasting a plot that moves at the speed of a runaway locomotive. Why wouldn’t this thing make millions for everyone involved?
The first season thrilled its gargantuan audience because it solved many of the problems endemic to catfight-filled melodramas without jettisoning the genre’s pulpy pleasures. The New Golden Age of TV has seen its share of “prestige” soaps, most notably Downton Abbey and Mad Men, but those shows dressed the suds up in respectable period drag. Meanwhile, more gleefully trashy fare like True Blood, Desperate Housewives, and Gossip Girl had a tendency to get stretched thin by overextended casts and peripheral storylines so pointless that you could barely remember the details after the cliffhangers and commercial breaks.
From the beginning, Empire did things differently. Creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong and showrunner Ilene Chaiken keep the focus almost entirely on the nuclear (meltdown) family of musical genius/magnate Lucious Lyon and his formerly incarcerated but equally astute ex-wife Cookie; you could count the scenes in which either they or one of their three children (bipolar businessman Andre, semi-closeted singer-songwriter Jamal, and ambitious m.c. Hakeem) failed to appear on two hands with fingers to spare. No worries about superfluous scenes here.
Meanwhile, calling the series fast-paced would be like calling Usain Bolt a champion jogger. This is a show in which a minor character once shot a guy, got arrested, went to jail, and had people complaining “I can’t believe he’s still locked up” in the space of 12 seconds. (We counted.) There’s never a sense that we’re stuck a holding pattern boring bullshit to kill time until the next big moment — it’s all big moments, one after another, with only the genuinely catchy original musical numbers for a breather.
In tonight’s Season Two premiere — “The Devils Are Here” — all these strengths and more are on full display. When we rejoin the Lyon clan, patriarch Lucious is still in prison for the murder of his former friend. Eldest son Andre and his wife Rhonda are stressing out about covering up a murder of their own. Middle son and handpicked heir Jamal is unhappily attempting to balance the demands of running his dad’s company, the need to keep writing/recording his own songs, his desire to lead a normal romantic life with his recently rekindled flame Michael, and his discomfort with being an LGBT poster boy. Youngest child Hakeem is…well, actually Hakeem doesn’t do all that much, other than fight with Jamal and ride a hoverboard. (Between performing their hearts out and orchestrating huge business deals, they tattle on each other to their mom.)
And Cookie — oh, Cookie! — is organizing a hostile takeover attempt that requires her to cozy up to horndog lesbian billionaire Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei in the best-named of the episode’s countless cameos) when she’s not dodging severed human heads lobbed at her by incarcerated druglord Frank Weathers (Chris Rock, amazingly enough). Both the hostile-takeover and gang-vengeance storylines are over by the time the closing credits roll, because Empire, like life, comes at you fast.
But it’s neither the show’s breakneck pacing nor life-imitates-art guest appearances (Swizz Beatz! Al Sharpton! André Leon Talley! Don freaking Lemon!) that made this premiere such a delight. From top to the bottom, this cast takes the material seriously enough to avoid deliberate camp, while retaining enough of a sense of humor and playfulness to escape the unintentional variety. As Jamal and Hakeem, Jussie Smollett and Bryshere Y. Gray fuse their very real musical gifts to characters who aren’t quite as grown up as they want people to think. Terrence Howard exudes his usual reptilian magnetism as a powerful figure whose prodigious talent is undermined by emotional instability, an inability to play nice with others, and a history of violence — quite a stretch for the actor, no doubt. Ta’Rhonda Jones and Gabourey Sidibe are unfailingly funny in their recently beefed-up roles as personal assistants Porsha and Becky respectively. And Chris Rock’s one-and-done turn is refreshingly underplayed; he just acts like how Chris Rock might act if he were angry and could order people’s deaths on a whim.
The real MVP, of course, is Taraji P. Henson, who easily could have taken the Emmy stage on Sunday in place of favorite Elisabeth Moss or upset winner Viola Davis. As Cookie, she’s asked anchor a preposterously wide-ranging series of scenes. She cracks jokes about the celebrity guests more or less to their faces. She serves up a cocktail of toxic racial imagery by entering her locked-up ex’s benefit concert by being lowered to the stage in a cage while wearing a gorilla suit (!), then delivers an impassioned speech about America’s out-of-control prison-industrial complex. She spars with her children, biting back her own discomfort in taking advantage of the Black Lives Matter movement as she encourages them to do the same. She drops offensively delicious one-liners like a Gucci-clad modern-day equivalent of Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling (“You can’t even dyke right”) and flirts with Marisa Tomei like the rap-game George Costanza. For all her wig-snatching, Cookie is no cartoon character: To quote another great work about rap-record labels, she’s got all the witty unpredictable talent and natural game that an actor of Henson’s caliber can pour into her. IRL empires have been built on less.