Fox’s wildly uneven, but potentially addictive new nighttime soap, “Empire,” feels like an anachronism. Although set in the present-day, high-rise world of big-money hip-hop in New York City, its lavish yacht parties and “yo, this song is whack” lingo make it look and sound as if it could have fit snugly between the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize” video and an episode of “MTV Cribs.”
Brought to us by Lee Daniels (“The Butler,” “Precious”), Danny Strong (“The Butler,” “Game Change”) and Brian Grazer, the action revolves around Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, “Hustle & Flow”) a once- vaunted rapper who worked his way out of the ghetto by selling drugs. He is now a (technically) legit industry mogul running Empire Entertainment, which includes a record label, a nightclub, sports ventures, and various and sundry merchandise offshoots. He’s also friends with President Obama. So, basically, he’s Jay Z. (The show’s soundtrack is overseen, ably, by frequent Jay Z collaborator Timbaland.)
Lucious is facing a life-threatening ailment and looking to turn over the business to one of his three sons. There is the youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, rapper Yazz the Greatest), a spoiled brat rapper and daddy’s favorite. Middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is a gifted, but closeted, R&B singer-songwriter — think John Legend mixed with Justin Timberlake — who is repeatedly shamed and victimized by his father for the “choice” of his sexuality. And oldest son Andre (Trai Byers, “Selma”) is the buttoned-down business professional who works as Empire’s CFO. Without telling them why, Lucious announces that he will soon begin grooming one of them to be his successor. “What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” asks Jamal in just one of several examples of the pilot’s thudding expositional touches.
The show doesn’t really pick up steam, however, until Taraji P. Henson — Howard’s “Hustle & Flow” costar — shows up as Lucious’s hell on heels ex-wife Cookie Lyon, fresh from a 17-year prison stint and ready to reclaim her crown as the queen of Empire. It was her encouragement and ill-gotten seed money that got the business going, and she is back to get hers.
Henson is starring in a whole other show that is a lot more campy fun. Just outside the prison gates she growls to no one in particular, “Cookie’s coming home” and then starts steamrolling everyone and everything in her way, slinging around the word “bitch” — e.g. “It was my 400,000 that started this bitch!” — like Jesse Pinkman from “Breaking Bad.” It is ridiculous, and as a manipulative, abusive, racist, homophobe, Cookie isn’t going to be winning any mother of the year awards — although few of the characters here are particularly likable — but she is very entertaining. This Cookie does not crumble. She is going to be a nightmare for Lucious and, based solely on the pilot, the only reason to give “Empire” a second look.
Aside from Henson, only Smollett really pops; his voice is lovely and his character the most sympathetic. If you’re a fan of Howard’s intense, still-waters-run-deep style, then his portrayal of Lucious will not disappoint. The dependable supporting cast includes Malik Yoba as Lucious’s consigliere and Gabourey Sidibe as his comic relief-providing assistant.
If the creative team discovers what works and what doesn’t and smooths out the dialogue tonally, “Empire” could become an engrossing, old-school family soap. Or it could continue down the path begun in the pilot and become the newest hate-watch sensation, not unlike another musical-minded show, “Smash.”Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com.