"Empire" is not one of those shows that you watch casually. The seaon starts (9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept, 21) with a thunderbolt, then doesn't really slow down. It's all very operatic ... or Shakespearean ... or Empirical. Here's the story I sent to papers:
By Mike Hughes
Leaping to the top
of the Nielsen ratings, “Empire” has merged worlds.
Shakespeare-meets-soap-opera, with a musical beat. It's a world of
big schemes and big characters. “It's what brought me back to TV,”
Taraji Henson said.
On “Person of
Interest,” Henson played a typical TV cop; “I literally did not
ever want to do television again,” she said. Then came this role as
Cookie Lyon, encased in flashy clothes (“I was a bit overwhelmed by
the fur noodles”) and rage; it has already brought her a Golden
Globe and two Emmy nominations.
And for Trai Byers,
who plays Andre, the show merges everything. He's done soaps and he's
a Yale School of Drama alumnus who knows Shakespeare ... which helped
him land the role.
At that point, his
career was still sputtering. He'd been Mookie (“a hoodlum, but an
interesting one”) on “All My Children” and nerdy Alec on
“90210.” He'd tried out a lot; “I must have had 300 auditions.”
At the “Empire”
audition, he compared Andre to Iago in “Othello.” Danny Strong,
the show's creator, was happy to hear that; he was planning to make
“Empire” very Shakespearean in plot and in tone. “I like the
fact that the stakes are so high,” Byers said.
His own background
had been mobile, in a military family that ranged from Kansas to the
Philippines. “It's the gypsy complex, to not be able to stay in one
place too long.”
He learned to adapt,
which is what the “Empire” characters keep doing, particularly:
-- Cookie, who went
to prison so her then-husband Lucious could build their record
company and raise their sons. “She was locked up for 17 years,”
Henson said. “She has a lot of catching up to do.”
-- Andre. On the
surface, he was the most together, a Wharton School of Business grad
and the CEO of his dad's company. Still, he has a bipolar disorder,
something he shares with his grandmother. “The gist of this is
really identity,” Byers said. “It's hard to be something when you
don't know who you are.”
Also, Andre is the
only non-musical one, in a family built on music. “Trai Byers has a
beautiful voice,” show-runner Ilene Chaiken said. “But he's not
going to sing in the show, because Andre doesn't.”
counterpoint is Rhonda, who was Andre's college sweetheart. Now she's
his wife and, Byers said, his Lady Macbeth. As last season ended, she
was fighting with the pregnant Anika (whom Lucious had just married,
to keep her from testifying against him) on a balcony.
That leaves viewers
wondering which woman (if any) will survive. This “gets answered in
a fabulous and heart-stopping way” in the first minute of the new
season, Chaiken said, accurately.
For Byers, it was a
balcony battle between his two wives – his fictional one and his
He and Grace Gealey
met on the show and married. The wedding, on her native Cayman
Islands, was in April; a month later, viewers saw her character
(Anika) marry his character's father (Lucious).
So now Trai Byers is
married to his fictional mother-in-law ... who is fighting his
fictional wife and carrying his fictional half-brother or half-sister
or (if Hakeem is the real father) his fictional niece or nephew. By
now, even Shakespeare would be boggled.
-- “Empire,” 9
p.m. Wednesdays, Fox; season starts Sept. 21