The weary ruler at the center of the show is Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), a drug-dealer-cum-mogul. He's the founder and CEO of Empire Entertainment, a hip-hop record company he built while raising three sons: Andre (Trai Byers), the oldest and most ambitious; Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the oft-neglected middle child; and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), the youngest and cockiest of the three.
At the beginning of the pilot, Lucious's eyes glaze over as he undergoes extensive medical tests. That's because his mind's on his money and his money's on his mind—although he's as yet unaware of his diagnosis (ALS, as it turns out), he's already doing some estate planning. Sensing he's running low on time, Lucious ponders which son to name as his successor, a decision that's far from clear-cut.
Lucious wants a celeb to front the company, and since his eldest, Andre, is "just" an MBA and not an MC, he's out. Jamal is a talented singer-songwriter, but he's gay, and Lucious insists that the "black community" (and the white kids that make up 75 percent of hip-hop's customer base) will reject a gay black performer/tycoon. Finally, there's baby brother and budding rapper Hakeem, who's the most like Lucious and is Lucious's favorite as a result. But Hakeem's ego and lack of professionalism make Lucious question whether he's ready for the job.
But just as soon as we decide which Lear daughter is which Lyon cub, we meet the pretender to the throne: Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), Lucious's ex-wife and mother of their three sons. She's been incarcerated for 17 lonely years and was all but forgotten by the men in her life, save for Jamal. She's back for what's hers—half of Empire—and her claim is as legitimate as it is illegitimate: she provided the seed money, but she obtained it while selling drugs.
The acting ranges from average (Byers's Andre is more pencil-pusher than schemer) to great, with Howard and Henson doing most of the heavy lifting. But Henson owns the premiere; she's Eleanor of Aquitaine for the Jet set, and beyond. I'm anticipating lots of "Cookie Lyon strutting" gifs (get on it, Internet).
Empire doesn't venture into new territory plot-wise; we've seen this kind of squabbling over Daddy's money plenty of times, from plays to soap operas. But creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (both of The Butler) work hard to make their show a genre bender, with Greek chorus-like numbers and plenty of grandstanding. It's not always an even mix, but it's damn entertaining.
What's most refreshing is seeing black artists dramatize this story of impresarios and dynasties. Lucious is a captain of industry, and Cookie the enterprising woman behind the great man. Their business is black owned and operated, their sons talented and educated. And they're unapologetically brash; at one point, Lucious declines a state dinner invitation from "Barack."
Sure, Empire's not quite as inspirational a work as The Butler, but it's certainly aspirational. OK, so company takeovers and triumphant artistic debuts aren't as lofty or pressing as equal rights, but the story of their struggle isn't the only one that black Americans have to tell. At a time when the country is being reminded how much black lives matter, the Lyons of Empire are thriving. And I think that's a story worth checking out.
Empire, Wednesdays at 8 PM on FOX