Weekly Musing: From Where I’m Sitting

Time for a bit of armchair writing. An idea I found for a blog post was to write about a favorite TV show or movie from a writer’s POV. That doesn’t mean to look at it from a screenwriter’s POV necessarily as I have no experience in writing a screenplay. However, I don’t think that means I can’t appreciate a TV or movie screenwriter’s work. After all, I’m first a viewer with my own initial reactions which differ from my reactions as a writer.

It was a daunting task trying to pick a favorite TV show or movie as my favorites change all the time. Instead the angle I’ll take is to analyze a new show I’m digging at the moment. Although it debuted just last month, FOX’s Empire has blown me away.

In a nutshell, Empire centers around the Lyon family headed by Lucious Lyon who is President of Empire Records. His ex-wife, Cookie, has just been released from prison after spending 17 years for selling drugs in order to fund the startup costs of Empire Records. In that time, Lucious has built it into a very successful company, so successful that they are planning to launch an IPO (in other words, they would be a publicly traded company on the NYSE). But upon Cookie’s release, she isn’t happy to be shut out of the company since it was her money that started it.

In addition to business differences, both Cookie and Lucious have tenuous relationships with each of their 3 children: Andre, the oldest and the one with the business degree, Jamal, the middle son who is all about the art, and Hakeem, the youngest and the one raised in wealth who dreams of superstardom. Add in Lucious’ girlfriend who works at Empire in a high profile capacity and you’ve got elements for a hurricane of a show.

What draws me in the most from a writer’s POV are the characters. For me characters are what drive a story. It’s sometimes why I can forgive weak plots or even gaping plot holes. At this point Empire has an incredible set of characters.

First I’ll quickly talk about the women on this show. Talk about a strong group of women. A common thread I’ve noticed is the women are just as competitive and cutthroat as the men in both business and personal affairs. It’s my secret hope the women will all get together and start their own label leaving the men behind.

You have the loud, assertive, vulnerable, keen-eared Cookie Lyons who loves music and the artistic expression of it rather than the business side although she does value one should get paid for their hard work. Her relationships with each of her sons vary from cold and rather non-existent with Andre to warm and loving with her favorite Jamal, and strained with Hakeem whom she missed most of his childhood.

Then there’s Andre’s wife, Rhonda, whom upon first glance appears to be the stereotypical white trophy wife of a rich black man but by the end of the first episode it is clear she is willing to help her husband in any way she can in his goal of being named the heir apparent. She has her own career and apparently is very good at hacking celebrity gossip websites. Together they have no second-thoughts about pitting the younger two Lyons against each other.

Annika Gibbons is Lucious’ fiancĂ©e and much like Rhonda, you think she’s just there for window dressing. But again, just like Rhonda, she is sharp, smart but thankfully a little warmer in that she doesn’t try to pit any of Lucious’ children against each other as they fight for dad’s blessing. She keeps her hands out of that as her real problem is with Cookie’s presence.

What I find intriguing about the women is they can all handle business and do it well. They aren’t running around looking for a man’s validation although the men are more than free with giving credit where credit is due. They are respected, smart, are on equal footing, and haven’t had to resort to sex to get ahead something that is very refreshing to see. For example, Lucious flat out tells Annika in one episode that Cookie knows what she’s talking about when it comes to music from an art perspective. He also drops a rapper from the label because he called Cookie a bitch when she was giving him her honest criticism of his music. There’s also one scene where Lucious’ assistant asks if she could start shadowing him on a particular project as she would like to learn the business more which he quickly agrees to.

Like the women, the male characters on Empire are complex creatures. You have the artist in Jamal, the young, wild, and in desperate need of some kind of guidance in Hakeem, and the quiet, in the background, and smart Andre all of which represent different aspects of their father, Lucious.

Lucious Lyon is devious, stubborn, a family man, conflicted, loyal (up to a point), and a fighter unwilling to give into a newly diagnosed illness that will ultimately take his life. That diagnosis is what fuels the cruel and unfair competition he’s set up between his sons. With the possible exception of Jamal, each of the sons has so far successfully jumped through Lucious’ hoops.

I wanted to root for Andre Lyon to be named successor as he is the one with a degree in business and has been an active part of the company for a long time. He has the ability to talk to bankers, lawyers, the NYSE, etc. and Lucious frequently relies upon him to fix any possible road bumps Empire encounters on its way to its IPO. However, his philosophy is divide and conquer. He’s more than happy to encourage the competition between his brothers in the hopes that they will take each other out leaving him the clear choice. He’s very much his father’s favorite.

Besides Cookie, my favorite character is Jamal Lyon. The middle child, he has the strongest musical ability but probably the least ambition for the kind of success his mother sees for him. He’s content to write and play songs at small clubs. Cookie favors him the most out of her three children as he is not only the most talented but also because he’s somewhat closeted homosexual who’s been almost completed rejected by Lucious. For example, in a flashback we see a young Jamal walk into the family living room wearing a pair of Cookie’s high heels and one of her scarves. Instantly Lucious picks the boy up, takes him outside, and puts him in the garbage can. Despite the fact Jamal and his father do not really get along, Lucious still pays for Jamal’s apartment until Jamal announces he’s thinking about going public with his sexuality. It is then that their relationship, both personally and professionally, ceases.

I feel bad for Hakeem Lyon. He’s the youngest and grew up without Cookie or really any mother figure in his life. Directionless, he thinks the only thing he can be in life is to be a successful rapper even though his mother points out how can he appeal to the masses when he grew up rich in a genre that usually prides itself on how ‘real’ their music keep it. He definitely has mommy issues which manifests itself in a relationship with a woman clearly old enough to be his mother. He’s starved for some kind of comfort and true guidance which he covers up by acting liking a spoiled, entitled little rich boy. Cookie knows he hates her and doesn’t try to push a relationship knowing she needs to give him time.

In addition to the characters, I think the writing is quite excellent especially since this is a network show. Usually networks play it safe by producing show after show about cops, doctors, and lawyers. At times I think I am watching a cable show because the themes explored feel more like what I’m used to seeing on network. Granted, FOX has usually had the reputation for taking chances with programming and pushing the envelope so it’s not a total surprise to me.

What I appreciate most about the writing is that the writers try to give the viewer complex characters and storylines to keep the viewer guessing. Expectations of what you think a character is going to be are instantly shattered. I’ve always liked stories with morally gray characters and not insulting the reader of viewer into passing automatic judgment. The dialogue is honest and what I find fascinating is that while most of the characters are actively plotting against each other, they all sort of honest about it. It’s a power grab rather than a money grab that drives the games people play with each other. A chess game of who can outsmart who?

This is a family drama in which I find myself unable to root for any one particular character although as I’ve already mentioned, I’m probably rooting for Cookie and Jamal. Through complex characters, complicated storylines that keep the viewer guessing, honest dialogue, and emphasizing the relationships that make me admire FOX’s Empire as a writer.