The commercial logic informing “Empire,” Fox’s new primetime soap, is obvious: Music provides a backdrop with ancillary benefits, especially on a network airing “American Idol”; and while diversity has improved, there remains a dearth of serious drama with predominantly African-American casts. Yet the show that emerges, despite an impressive ensemble headlined by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, feels perfunctory — as if subplots were chosen from a preordained serialized-TV checklist. By that measure, this handsome series dutifully plucks all the chords, yes, but doesn’t invest them with much surprise or conviction.
Howard plays Lucious Lyon, who has spent his life building Empire Entertainment into a Motown-like juggernaut. Still, a silent visit to the doctor suggests trouble lies ahead, which is hastened when he informs his three sons, without explaining why, that he intends to begin grooming one of them to succeed him.
This sets off a competition among the kids (one actually mentions “King Lear,” just in case anyone misses the parallels), who consist of the married businessman (Trai Byers); the closeted gay singer (Jussie Smollett) who dad doesn’t accept; and the youngest brother (Bryshere Gray), also a performer, who doesn’t feel wholly comfortable in the musical niche into which his father has shoehorned him.
The fireworks, however (or at least, the hope of them), are just starting, as Lucious’s wife Cookie (Henson) is released from prison wearing an outfit that makes clear she’s no wallflower, determined to claim a portion of the company she sees as rightfully hers. But securing Cookie’s fortune will require not just reconnecting with her sons, who have grown up without her, but if necessary manipulating them to do her bidding.
Created by director Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, who collaborated on “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (which counted Howard among its cast), “Empire” owes an obvious debt to “Dreamgirls,” exposing the ruthlessness that surrounds the music industry. The premiere effectively uses flashbacks to putty in some of the family history, but almost every beat is so familiar the narrative can employ a kind of shorthand. That includes the music, which is plentiful, catchy, written by Timbaland, and as slick and derivative as everything else on display.
With “Idol” past its heyday, Fox could clearly use a break, and the way the network is promoting and scheduling “Empire” suggests the honchos think this might be the answer to their prayers. Certainly with all the talent involved — including an understated Malik Yoba as Lucious’ right hand, and Gabourey Sidibe, of Daniels’ “Precious,” in a guest stint — they haven’t scrimped on the cast, look or auspices.
For now, though, “Empire” feels more like an opening act than a marquee player, one that will need — even more than a good lead-in — luck and time to find its groove.