DVD Review: Empire – The Complete First Season (USA, 2015)

Sometimes described as a loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Empire is a drama series that follows the power struggle that ensues when gangster turned hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyons (Terrence Howard) is diagnosed with ALS. Faced with only a few months left before the disease kills him, Lucious pits his children against each other in a contest to prove themselves worthy of his riches and his empire.

In one corner, you’ve got Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) – a brattish hip-hop star on the rise and (at least at the start of the series) Lucious’ favored child. In another, you have Jamal (Jussie Smollett) – who is musically gifted but resented by his father for his sexuality. Lastly, Andre (Trai Byers) is a business prodigy determined to overcome his initial dismissal as a successor by Lucious (due to his lack of artistic talent) by manipulating his brothers into destroying one another. Complicating things further is Lucious’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) who storms back into the picture after serving 17 years in prison to demand her share of the company. It’s a great setup and for the most part the show delivers on it.

On the production side of things, Empire is a delight. The direction by series creator Lee Daniels and co. is strong and the show keeps a great sense of pacing and energy as it goes on. From the costuming to the scoring, it finds the note it wants to hit and then lands it almost every time.

The plethora of musical sequences produced by Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley suggest Empire has a little bit of Glee in its DNA. However, underneath this flashy exterior, it’s a trashy soap opera through and through with all the snarky one-liners and ‘shock twists’ that those entail. Everyone on the show really leans into their roles to great effect and it encourages you to embrace the nonsensical nature of the family struggle at its centre. The writing is possessed of a marvelous recklessness and just when you think the show is setting up a twist that’ll pay off in five episodes, it breaks things wide open within the hour.

The only thing that occasionally nagged me about the writing was that it sometimes becomes a little too ambitious for its own good. It often tries to push Lucious’ homophobic relationship with Jamal as a metaphor for the broader hip-hop community, with mixed-results.
Hopefully Season 2 reigns this in a bit – though to be clear the show engaging with these issues isn’t the problem, but rather its inability to balance these serious ideas with it’s own ludicrous reality.

With its first season, Empire proves itself one of the most fun new network television series in recent years. It’s got a great cast, refreshingly-different premise and a consistently strong production quality that make it really easy to recommend.

Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The DVD release of the first season includes the whole 12 episode run, but is a little light on special features. There’s a commentary track for the pilot episode and music videos for all the songs in the show. While your mileage with the latter may vary based on how much you like the music, the former provides some pretty interesting insights. In general I wish there was more on offer here, Empire seems the kind of show just begging for a blooper reel.

Special Features Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Empire: The Complete First Season is available on DVD and Blu-Ray Now.