Set within a world of music, glamour, danger and power, EMPIRE is about a family dynasty that follows the head of a music empire whose three sons and ex-wife all battle for his throne. After music mogul Lucious Lyon (Oscar Nominee Terrence Howard*) is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, he must choose which of his three sons will succeed him at the legendary Empire Entertainment. The game changes when his ex-wife Cookie (Oscar Nominee Taraji P. Henson**) returns from prison where she's been for almost two decades. Brash and fearless, she sees herself as the sacrificial lamb who built an empire with Lucious and then took the fall for running the drugs that financed Lucious' early career. As the Lyons slug it out, a battle begins that will either cause the family's destruction or redemption.
From the award-winning Lee Daniels, ("Lee Daniels' The Butler," "Precious"), Emmy Award winner Danny Strong ("Game Change," "Lee Daniels' The Butler") and Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning producer Brian Grazer ("A Beautiful Mind," "24"), comes "a genuine cultural phenomenon" (The Village Voice). Executive-produced by Daniels, Strong, Grazer, Ilene Chaiken ("The L Word") and Francie Calfo ("Those Who Kill," "Gang Related"), this groundbreaking series features a pulsating soundtrack from legendary R&B/hip hop producer and composer Timbaland.
"Empire" Season 1 features iconic music performances from an all-star cast which includes Terrence Howard (BET Award winner for Best Actor), Taraji P. Henson (Critics' Choice Television Award winner for Best Actress in a Drama Series, BET Award winner for Best Actress), Jussie Smollett, Byshere Y. Gray, Kaitlin Doubleday, Malik Yoba, Trai Byers and Grace Gealey. The series included an impressive roster of guest star appearances from the likes of Courtney Love, Jennifer Hudson, Gabourey Sidibe, Gladys Knight, Cuba Gooding Jr., Estelle, Mary J. Blige, Naomi Campbell Snoop Dog, Rita Ora, and Patti LaBelle, among others!
Created by Lee Daniels (director of 'Precious' and 'The Butler') and Danny Strong (actor/Emmy Award-winning writer for Game Change), the soap opera 'Empire' was a smash hit. For the 2014-2015 season, it was the second most-watched new show behind CBS' 'NCIS: New Orleans', the second most-watched in the 18-49 demo behind 'NBC Sunday Night Football', and the most popular show on FOX.
In a variation on Shakespeare's 'King Lear', entertainment mogul/hip hop artist/former drug dealer Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) must decide to which of his three sons he is going to leave his company, Empire Enterprises, once learning he suffers from ALS and likely only has three years to live.
Andre (Trai Byers) is the elder son. He works as the company's CFO, married his Caucasian college girlfriend Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), and has medical issues of his own that slowly come to light. Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is an R&B singer for the Empire label, but he has long embarrassed his father because he refuses to accept his son is gay. Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is a rapper and Lucious thinks Hakeem is so talented he can rule the music charts like Lucious did back in the day. Throughout the season, Lucious plays the sons off one another and switches alliances to whatever best suits his immediate needs.
Matters become even more complicated when Lucious' ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, who creates one of the most memorable characters of the decade) gets out of jail after 17 years and comes looking for her half the company. She feels she's entitled because her money started the company and she took the rap for him, which cost her their marriage (Lucious filed for divorce while she was away) and damaged her relationship with their sons. Instead, she begins working at the label, helping develop artists like Jamal, which disappoints Lucious' girlfriend/A&R head Anika (Grace Gealey). The two women hate each other immediately.
Lee Daniels told 'The Hollywood Reporter' he "wanted to make a black 'Dynasty'," and 'Empire' certainly delivers in the same sexy, sensational way as that memorable '80s prime time sudser. Sex is used by the characters to manipulate others and also because they enjoy it, including scenes with Jamal. Right from the "Pilot," we see members of the Lyon family willing to commit murder to protect what's theirs. An in a grand tradition of soap opera, Jamal's ex-wife Olivia (Raven-Symoné) shows up with his daughter.
While outlandish storylines are expected and frequently happen, some didn't make sense. It was hard to believe no one in this family of schemers thought to get a paternity test for Jamal. Hakeem's girlfriend, Camilla (Naomi Campbell), is forced to leave the U.S. but not sure how since she refused a payoff. Jamal, out of character, threatens to kill record label rival Billy Beretti (Judd Nelson) but Lucious could easily hire a thug to do it.
Most surprised by "Dangerous Bonds" where Cookie puts out a hit on a gangster she thinks is coming after her and discovers too late she's made a mistake. No retaliation ever comes the rest of the season, which seems unbelievable. Hopefully, this will be dealt with eventually, rather than going the way of the Russians in 'The Sopranos'.
Music is an integral element to the series. Timbaland is the executive music producer, and with his team, they create original music for the show. Even if the genres may not be to a viewer's taste, the songs should keep one engaged as most of the lyrics reflect what is going on with the characters. Some times though, the producers are more concerned about the sound than the reality of the scene. For example, Jamal uses autotune in the studio, but when he unexpectedly arrives at a small club to have a rap battle with Black Rambo, he shouldn't have any yet does. Also, the show unintentionally demonstrates how terrible autotune is when they have Jamal sing a duet with the truly talented Patti Labelle (as herself).
I recommend 'Empire: The Complete First Season' to those looking for a soap opera to savor. It delivers in many of the areas the genre is known for. While I wasn't left compelled to tune into the second season as it airs, I enjoyed making my way through the set and learning what all the fuss is about.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 12 episodes of 'Empire: The Complete First Season' are spread across three 50GB Region Free Blu-ray discs in a standard blue case with a slipcover. The first disc has previews for TV shows 'Sleepy Hollow', 'Vikings', and 'Wayward Pines'.
The video for 'Empire: The Complete First Season' has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC that is displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The modern-day scenes feature bold, vibrant hues to help show off the extravagant lifestyles the characters lead, and the wide color spectrum captured helps display the variety of fleshtones of the cast. Colors are intentionally duller and tend towards brown during flashbacks.
Blacks are very inky and whites are bright. The latter is especially evident during the White Party sequence in "The Lyon's Roar." The picture is sharp, revealing very fine texture details on the costumes. It also offers great depth in the wide shots where a lot of business occured.
The only negative was bright, light sources. In the "Pilot," lights would bleed in a scene. Also throughout the season, whether sunlight or office lamps, the sources would bloom.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. The music sounds great throughout the surrounds. The vocals are clear, and the instruments are discernible within the arrangements. Dialogue is also understandable throughout.
The track has a wide dynamic range, though on occasion, the bass can be too loud in the mix and reach levels where they distort. Effects are not as pervasive in the surround mix, but all the elements blend well together for a satisfying experience.
'Empire' will be remembered as the soap opera of this decade, and those with an interest in melodrama will very likely be satisfied by the shenanigans of the Lyon family and those in their lives. The HD presentation the first season received on Blu-ray does a very good job showcasing the music and lifestyles of the rich and famous on screen.