Fox is back in the primetime soap opera business! The network that gave us Beverly Hills, 90210, Melrose Place and The O.C., saw 9.8 million people tune in to the premiere of hip-hop sudser Empire on Wednesday night.
Empire improved on the demo rating of lead-in American Idol. Empire snagged a healthy 3.7 among adults 18-49; Idol averaged 3.1.
From executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo, Empire is a loose retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear, with more than a healthy dose of the late Aaron Spelling's Dynasty thrown in for good measure.
Terrence Howard stars as drug dealer-turned-music mogul Lucious Lyon. On the eve of taking Empire Entertainment public, Lucious is dealt with the twins blows of learning he has ALS and finding out his ex-wife, the insurmountable Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), has been released from prison. As I live-tweeted during the premiere, just go ahead and hand the next six seasons worth of Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series Emmys to Henson.
Lucious pits his three sons, Ivy leaguer Andre (Trai Byers); gay musical genius Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Justin Bieber-esque youngest offspring Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), against one another to determine who will prove a worthy successor to his empire. What Lucious doesn't count on, is Cookie demanding both her cut of the family business and control of Jamal's musical destiny.
Cookie did 17 years in prison, following a drug deal gone wrong. The $400,000 in dirty money she managed to acquire is what was used to start Empire Records and led to Lucious becoming a superstar on par with Jay-Z and Diddy. In one of countless memorable scenes from the pilot, Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), Lucious's executive assistant, informs him President Barack Obama is desperate to have him perform.
While Empire boasts a stellar ensemble, Henson, Smollett and Howard stand out as modern day equivalents of Dynasty's Alexis Colby, Steven and Blake Carrington. A harrowing sequence of flashbacks in the pilot revealed just how deep Lucious's ugly, homophobic feelings toward the most impressive of his sons runs. They also recalled just how strong Cookie's fierce love for her middle child is. When she told young Jamal, "I got you", while separated by prison glass, mama meant it.
Don't get it twisted. Cookie is no Clair Huxtable. When baby boy Hakeem called her a bitch, she promptly beat the hell out of him with a broom handle.
Parallel to the family drama and music industry glitz runs a gritty murder mystery arc. When an old friend turns out to be a traitor, Lucious handles things in traditional hood fashion. Look for his deadly decision to come back to haunt him as the season progresses.
If you missed the premiere of Empire, run, don't walk, and catch it now at Fox.com.
Empire airs Wednesday nights at 9/8C on Fox.