Friday, January 2, 2015

Why I can't wait to watch 'Empire,' Fox's trippy new drama

Terence Howard plays a dying music mogul on Fox's new drama, 'Empire'
Empire, Fox's new hip-hop drama about a dying music mogul who must decide which of his three sons will inherit his business once he's gone, is notable for several reasons.

For starters, the series, which premiers Wednesday at 9 p.m., reunites Oscar nominees Terrence Howard, who plays Lucious Lyon, the dying mogul and Taraji P, Henson as his ex-wife/ex-con, Cookie, a woman all turned up and who desperately wants what she believes is hers -- that profitable empire. Howard and Henson, of course, starred together in the film, Hustle & Flow.

Secondly, the show's co-creators have impressive Hollywood cred -- Lee Daniels was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for The Butler while Danny Strong won an Emmy for writing Game Change, the HBO film about the historic 2008 presidential election.

Empire also boasts all that hip-hop music, if you're into that sort of thing, with Timbaland overseeing the beats.

But, what stands out is this: Lucious's son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), is gay. Sure, there are plenty of gay characters on television today. Hell, Shonda Rhimes wouldn't be in business with them. There's even a whole cable channel -- Logo TV -- aimed at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender viewers. Point is, it's no longer earth-shattering -- and it shouldn't be -- like it was in 1997 when Ellen DeGeneres' character announced in an airport that she was a lesbian.

Network TV writers, however, haven't created many black male characters who happen to be gay.

The two most memorable: Omar Little, the shotgun-toting gangster on The Wire who was often seen in bed with his pretty boy lovers, and Lafayette, the short-order cook on True Blood. Both were fleshed-out, three dimensional characters who weren't simply there to serve the white characters on those shows.

And it's no accident that both shows aired on HBO, a premium cable channel known for taking risks because, well, it's not beholden to advertisers and doesn't have to reach a broad audience like broadcast networks.

Andre Braugher now plays one of the most prominent black male gay characters on the Fox sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine. But that's played for laughs.

Making Lucious' son gay is a delicious twist on Empire because most black men in the ultra-macho -- and homophobic -- hip-hop world would rather be diagnosed with Ebola than to be known as someone who sleeps with other men.

How much the writers delve into this aspect of Jamal's life remains to be seen.

But, let's hope Empire doesn't punk out and has the nerve to realistically explore a sensitive topic that is still viewed as taboo in many parts of the hip-hop community.

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