Empire Premiere: Will You Keep Fox's Hip-Hop Drama in Heavy Rotation?

Woman walks into a boardroom.

Nope, that’s not the setup for an old-school joke you don’t want to hear — not when you’re watching Fox’s Empire, and the woman in question is Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie, the baddest (and most quotable) bitch to swill scotch, grab her gun before answering her door, love her kids unconditionally (while occasionally beating ’em with a broom) and threaten her two-faced ex with total corporate annihilation.

“You messin’ with the wrong bitch.” “For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place.” “What I want is some respect!” Those are just a few of Cookie’s greatest hits — and Henson, who controls every scene like an East German Olympic swim coach in a kiddie pool (circa 1972), proves to be the magnificently entertaining linchpin to this soapy story of a hip-hop dynasty on the brink of an IPO (or possibly a complete and total collapse).

Here’s the setup: Terrence Howard plays Lucious, a hip-hop mogul taking his company public, while preparing to pass his torch to one of his three very different sons — business-minded Andre (Trai Byers), closeted crooner Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and (horribly dressed) immature playboy rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, aka rapper Yazz The Greatest). There’s a definite sense of urgency to Lucious’ mission, too, since he’s just been diagnosed with ALS and his doctor’s are giving him only three years to live. Plus, his ex Cookie has just gotten out of jail on drug charges after 17 years — an illegal business that provided Lucious with $400,000 in seed money for his music biz — and has come to collect her bill.

Among the pilot’s most essential/delectable moments/plot points:

WHAT WE’RE GONNA DO IS GO BACK… WAY BACK | The action intersperses between present day and flashback, with the most harrowing peek into the past centered on Jamal. We see him as a grade-school boy, trying on his mother’s heels and scarf, a revelation that sends homophobic Lucious into a rage and causes him to throw Jamal into a metal trash can (before he’s rescued by an utterly aghast Cookie). Jamal’s sexual orientation isn’t a mere subplot here, though: It’s quite possibly a launching pad for the show’s central Cookie vs. Lucious showdown. Which leads me to…

A TALE OF TWO BROTHERS | While Cookie quickly learns her initial seed money (and the sacrifice she made in going to prison) won’t get her 50% of the company, it does land her a low- to mid-seven-figure salary and the right to manage Jamal (who’ll get no support from his father unless he pretends to be heterosexual). With Lucious taking the reins of Hakeem’s career, the pilot leaves us with both talented young men on target for potential superstardom — and a fight for the kind of record-company resources needed to make those dreams come true. Even more interesting? Jamal and Hakeem are clearly devoted to each other — the scene where Jamal whips up a piano line for Hakeem’s latest rap is one of the most riveting in the entire hour — but will their love hold up as they’re used as pawns in Cookie and Lucious’ war? Andre, for his part, sees a Jamal-vs.-Hakeem title fight as his surest path to the CEO chair (or at least that’s his point of view after his wiley wife suggests it).

RIGHT-HAND MAN WITH A PLAN | Not enough drama for you? The hour ends with Lucious putting a bullet in the head of his childhood friend and bodyman Punky, who betrays his boss and threatens to expose Lucious’ prior murder of four drug dealers unless the now-legit businessman gives him $3 million to square up his debts.

DID WE MENTION THE MUSIC? | Like Season 1 of Nashville, a good chunk of Empire‘s allure comes from its ability to mine drama from the process of writing, recording and marketing music. The opening scene — in which Lucious wrings a more potent performance out of a gorgeous songbird by reminding her of a tragedy from her past — is a whopper. But it’s Jamal’s plaintive “Good Enough” and Hakeem’s “That Ish Right There” that make believable the idea that Cookie-Vs.-Lucious is a war with real stakes (and real millions to be made).

ETC, ETC, ETC… | Lucious, Andre and Jamal all have romantic interests who look like they’ll be intriguing players as the season progresses — and Malik Yoba’s Vernon clearly has past beef with Cookie (and a manipulative streak with all the players) that could turn him into the Big Bad of Season 1. Still, no matter where the action goes, let’s hope the writers don’t forget that Henson excels at Big Diva Moments like Cookie crashing Lucious’ board room as he preps his inner circle for their IPO maneuver.

“Don’t forget to thank your Cookie on this historic occasion!” she coos. That line applies not only to the scene in question, but to the entire series, too.

What did you think of Empire? Grade it in our poll below, then sound off in the comments!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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75 Comments
  1. Erica says:

    I liked it, I didn’t think I would!

    Although I cannot get attached to anything on FOX, aka Killer of Great Television.

  2. Loved every second. Cookie is a walking Internet meme manufacturer.

  3. Jennie says:

    I liked it. Cookie pretty much carried that episode, though. It’s a soap opera, for sure, but it was entertaining. So I’ll watch next week, for sure

  4. Mick says:

    Unlike Nashville which struggled with its soap opera roots in its first season it looks like Empire embraces them and therefore may have a more steady creative ride.

    • Mick says:

      Also while the parents seem intent on the two younger brothers being at each other’s throats it is clear that their music works best together a la Jaden and Willow Smith (if you listen to Jaden mixtapes the best songs usually are his collaborations with Willow. )

  5. Lee Daniels has said in every interview I’ve read–and I’ve read five or 6– that he intends this to be the “Black Dynasty”.

  6. Eli Edwards says:

    Best pilot of the spring season.

  7. Mika02 says:

    The only thing I didn’t like was that derogatory word. I get she was trying to speak his terms but still sucks. That said awesome show can’t wait for the rest of the season. Love the cast, the music and the storyline.

  8. Robin F. says:

    I LOVED IT!! Tarajis’ Cookie stole the show! Terrance Howard is great as always. I have to watch it again to see how I feel about the kids. On first viewing I was so focused on the parents that I didn’t really note the kids. I will be back next week!

  9. androme3 says:

    I honestly enjoyed the premiere, every actor was great, especially Taraji P. Henson, who pretty much made me both laugh and frown. All the scenes had my interest and the story is really amazing. I’m definitely watching this to the end, and hoping this goes to Season 2 (of hopefully a lot).

  10. Kaba says:

    Taraji is playing the hell out that hood mama role.

  11. Amie says:

    It’s Lucious Lyon in Winter! I haven’t decided if Malik Yoba, Andre’s wife or Jamal’s boyfriend is Philip of France, but for now, I love Empire and its Lion in Winter stylings!

    • Amie says:

      Oh, and like Lion in Winter’s quotable and ferocious Eleanor, Henson’s Cookie gets all the best lines and makes the biggest impression. Maybe Cookie will get to snark about riding bare-breasted into battle (or at Super Bowl halftime).

    • macy says:

      Thanks for the reference — very interesting!

  12. LaLa says:

    I am hooked. They knocked it out if the park tonight, and the previews for the entire season looked so juicy. A little over the top at times, but overall I am excited to see where this goes.

  13. LaPiquante says:

    And Gabby Sidibe was great! Can’t wait to see more of her and her fantastic costumes!

  14. Ron says:

    I really didn’t think I would like it. And I actually had no plans on even watching it. But I decided to give it a try. It turns out that I actually love it. It’s one of my favorite mid-season premiers in several years. This worries me, though, as Fox is the go-to killer for good shows. It’s like a cancellation graveyard of good shows.

    • Ron says:

      Oh, and I feel the need to mention that Henson’s Cookie is kickass. I love her. But of course, I pretty much love everything that Taraji does.

  15. ninamags says:

    I really liked it. I didn’t realize Jamal’s story would be front and center. I thought it would be something that was mentioned every now and then. Color me intrigued.

    That little boy is a punk and deserved that beat down with the broom.

    I liked the music as well.

  16. Robby Horine says:

    I was going to catch it ON DEMAND, but once I read the ALS part, I just can’t. My dad died from ALS years ago and it’s still tough to read or watch anything about the disease.

  17. Ally Oop says:

    Really great pilot! Taraji hit this out of the park as did the rest of the cast. That garbage can scene was very poignant. TV’s fall season failed to bring me any new shows I could actually get excited about but the winter season has brought me at least one very good show in Empire. Crossing my fingers that FOX can get good ratings for at least one new show.

  18. analog says:

    why does the dad have to be the homophobe. it would have been interesting if it was the mom.

    • Bo says:

      The have and the have nots made it the mom, and she is so horrible most viewers hate her ,lm glad Cookie isnt like that and everyone loves her.

    • TigerLIL says:

      It is on the Haves and Have Nots that run on Oprah’s network and the moma homophobia on that show is heartbreaking coming from a mom point of view

  19. Mary D says:

    OMG. It can’t be any better. Cried on the little boy in heels and screamed out loud everything cookie hit the screen. Every character is excellent. Can’t wait for next week. DAMN I’M HOOKED!
    Lee Daniels welcome to TV. You’ve made my day.

  20. sarah31733 says:

    I’ve been waiting for this show to fulfill my soap needs and it more than the requirement. i’m in for the ride

  21. Tanera Harrell says:

    THE MUSIC!!!!!!! Amazing!!!!!!!!!

    • mary says:

      agree 1000000% !
      jim beanz and timberland – great.

    • Jess says:

      Agree!! That first song and I was hooked! By chance, does anyone know where we can find the music to this series? Is there a soundtrack coming out because that’s how good the music is. And that Good Enough song…beautiful! Music aside, I think this is a great new series with a riveting storyline and a dynamic cast. The scene with Luscious throwing Jamal in the trash for wearing his mama’s heels brought tears to my eyes. I’m excited for the rest of the season!

  22. Jay says:

    I checked it out as it was coming from Lee Daniels, but I didn’t realize it was going to be filled with such amazing music. The cast was wonderful, but the music is what will keep me tuned in.

  23. Renee says:

    I was looking forward to watching this premiere and it did not disappoint. I enjoy both Taraji and Terrance, great casting all the way around.. It’s about time we got a black Dynasty :)

  24. dancmh says:

    When Taraji P. Henson is on screen you can’t take your eyes off her. Everyone else so far? Meh. If I keep watching, I’ll be watching it for her.

  25. sladewilson says:

    Taraji owned it. OWNED. IT. A very promising beginning and I saw the “shock” ending coming a mile away. Still the way Terrence played it was perfect. The best scene was the two brothers working on the song – very cool….

  26. TL says:

    Really disappointed. I thought it was really choppy and predictable. Plus, really inconsistent with character development. Taraji was the ONLY saving grace, she was amazing! And the music was great! I’ll give it another week though…

  27. This show is different. Its real its somethi.g everyone can relate to taraji was excellent matter or fact all of the actors and actress were excellent love this show we need more blacks shows on TV and the Big Screen

  28. KC says:

    I watched 10 mins and had to turn the station – really bad

  29. Hattie Davis says:

    OMG!, I waited all this time, patiently, for Empires premere. I MISSED IT. Will there be an Encore Presentation??? Somebody please tell me.

    • Matt Webb Mitovich says:

      You can watch the full episode on FOX NOW, Fox.com and Hulu (and you don’t need a cable subscription – it’s unlocked). It will encore on Fox Jan. 17.

  30. Sandra L. says:

    I loved the premier!!! Excellent cast, music and storyline. Excited for more …. can’t wait until next week.

  31. Zenobia Jackson says:

    I really liked Taraji P Henson before, but, I love her more now. She is great in this role and I really enjoyed the show. I was glued to the screen from start to finish. Who would have thought that FOX would come up with the most intriguing show of the season? I hope it keeps doing well.

  32. rhonu says:

    Whew…I had high expectations because of Taraji and Terence so I prepared myself for some good tv and I was not disappointed. I love the music, I think the storyline is good that can take the show in so many directions which is good. In conclusion, this is a hit with me and it will be added to the list of shows “I have” to watch.

  33. Jan says:

    Henson really grabbed me! I’m hoping the show will continue to be as good as its pilot.

  34. Temperance says:

    Let’s cut to the chase: as ultimately cool and remarkable that they have a bold, front and center gay character (and placing homosexual acceptance front and center as a core theme), the show is all about Taraji. It’s all about Cookie and Taraji. And as awesome as both are, I’m nore she that carries the show.

  35. Parker christian says:

    Empire is off the chain!!! It was electrifying and chilling. Tara gave a performance that was chilling and breathtaking!!!!!!

  36. Sherry young says:

    It was the bomb!

  37. Sally says:

    I read that Jamal’s character was based on Lee Daniels’ childhood growing up, which is really interesting to me. I thought the show was great and I love Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson.

  38. Scout says:

    Didn’t think I would, but I loved it. Great writing. Great! Ms. Taraji P. Henson?!! Wow, girl, wow.

  39. iamkessuki23tw says:

    loved it. loved taraji – she owns this show. but sidibe needs to lose the silly blonde wig.

  40. Kay says:

    Relatable, timely, and completely entertaining! On the lookout for the next casting!

  41. TigerLIL says:

    Got to agree the show was hot and the casting is excellent. The leads are going to be both funny and exciting those two have amazing chemistry on screen….It’s a hit out the box and the music and talent wow!

  42. Ray says:

    Wasn’t bad, but I hated Hakim’s music.

  43. Mary says:

    The acting is terrific, the music is terrific, and the premise is exciting, but the writing is so heavy handed. Stereotypes abound.

  44. leo says:

    I haven’t been this excited for a show like this in years. I can’t wait until Wednesday night.

  45. AWill says:

    This kind of drama let’s us go deeper into the magnamous world of the music business. We get to see closer the good, the bad and the ugly all in the name of love . Wow. It is sexy, passionate, vicious!!! Entertainment unloaded. Kudos to the talented and realistic cast. I want more!

  46. Dolemite says:

    This was pretty much what I expected from the commercials. TPH was awesome, but the rest of it left me disappointed. I hope this show gets better because I love TPH, but I won’t be able to continue watching this if she’s the only thing in the show worth watching.

  47. This is one of the best series I have seen in a long time. The cast of Actors are phenomenal, and the Writers are incredibly creative. I have watch Episode 1 multiple times and still can’t get enough.

  48. Linda says:

    Loved the show,music, terrance is great ,can’t wait to see it again,!watching it again now

  49. Andrea Lawson says:

    Love it already. Can’t wait to see what’s ahead. .

  50. karen says:

    Great story line
    I love this show because its was real,talking about things that are usually whispered about.