TVLine's Performer of the Week: Empire's Taraji P. Henson

A weekly feature in which we spotlight shining stars

THE PERFORMER | Taraji P. Henson

THE SHOW | Empire

THE EPISODE |Pilot

THE AIRDATE | January 7, 2015

THE PERFORMANCE In the one-hour premiere of Empire, protagonist Cookie Lyon pulls an Alexis Carrington Colby and crashes a board meeting of a major record label; schemes her way into a seven-figure salary mere days after finishing a 17-year prison stint; alternately threatens, flirts with and rails against the ex-husband Lucious (Terrence Howard) who rose to fame and fortune thanks to her sacrifices; and — for good measure — beats down her disrespectful rapper son with a broom.

On paper, this all might sound just shy of ridiculous. But thanks to an electrifying performance by Oscar-nominated Taraji P. Henson, Cookie becomes the blazing sun around which the addictive Empire universe revolves. Sure, there are campy elements to the role — executive producer Lee Daniels has said he envisioned the show as a “black Dynasty” — but Henson’s keen sense of when to tap into Cookie’s humor, toughness and vulnerability (sometimes all at once) is one of the main reasons the show cannot be dismissed as a mere guilty pleasure.

EmpireTake the flashback scene in which Cookie and Lucious’ grade-school age son teeters into the family’s crowded dining room wearing his mother’s heels and scarf. As homophobic Lucious bolts toward the boy, carries him into the backyard and (horrifyingly) dumps him into a metal trash can, Henson brings to stunning life a rapid-fire chain reaction of emotions: Surprise, dread, panic, horror, and finally, rage. Henson informs Cookie with a genuine maternal ferocity that leaves her cradling a scared Jamal while kicking out at Lucious with a reflexive, unhinged violence.

Henson keeps that streak of menace just beneath the surface of present-day Cookie, too — narrowing her eyes to let folks know when her patience is wearing thin, punctuating sentences with the word “bitch” like she’s still in the prison yard — and it makes Empire a better, more unpredictable show. She may be penniless and powerless when she arrives on the scene, but Cookie somehow controls every interaction — whether she’s plotting with eldest son Andre, camping it up to charm Jamal and his boyfriend, demanding respect from petulant youngest Hakeem or negotiating with Lucious. Like her character, Henson seems to be holding the reins every second she’s on screen, as well, and we can’t wait to see where she steers us next.

unnamed-5HONORABLE MENTION | Ridiculous royals are nothing new at all to television and film comedies. (See: Monty Python and the Holy Grail, lots.) Yet Timothy Omundson has found his own highly entertaining wrinkle to bring to Galavant’s more-clueless-than-ruthless King Richard. Whether grumbling (in song, impressively) about Madelena’s adoration of the show’s titular hero, “butching up” to hopefully breach said wife’s “vow of chastity” or letting slip a tiny fist-pump upon scoring a big win, Omundson’s meddling monarch is one almost worth rooting for — especially given his queen’s bratty antics.

BonnieHONORABLE MENTION | When the Braverman clan arrived at the hospital on Thursday’s Parenthood with questions about Zeek’s health, Camille calmly told her children, “Of course he’s all right. He’s your father.” Little did the family know, Camille was internally falling apart, and Bonnie Bedelia shined in her portrayal of a mother and wife trying to keep it together while grappling with a catastrophic loss. Bedelia infused heartache into every one of her scenes, even in moments that required no dialogue. Her soft sobs in the hospital chapel, the defeated expression on her face as Dr. Gordon discussed surgery for Zeek — even the actress’ quietest movements were enough to communicate Camille’s fear, anxiety and sadness. It was, quite simply, Bedelia’s finest hour.

Which performance knocked your socks off this past week?