I watched the pilot in September because it was part of Lufthansa's in flight entertainment program; by now, the dvds are out, and so I could watch the entire first season.
The short version: wildly entertaining Lion in Winter
AU set in the US music industry, with everyone but one (supporting) regular character black. Also, genre wise, very much a 1980s style soap, by which I mean it reminded me of Dallas
. This is not meant as a disparagement. I watched both Dallas
in the 80s! So when I saw a scene where Andre (aka The Smart Son) and his wife Rhonda schemed together on how to provoke Andre's younger brother Hakeem into a public meltdown by ( making him aware of a spoilery soapy circumstance )
, I felt like I was back in Dallas or Denver, with Larry Hagman or Joan Collins right around the corner.
What makes this a Plantagenet/Lion in Winter AU is the initial set up: three sons up for the possible succession, mother out of prison (17 years for Cookie Lyon, 16 years for Eleanor of Aquitaine), Dad's favourite is the youngest, Hakeem (who in an improvement on Lion in Winter
's take on John isn't an unhygienic idiot, though he is a loudmouth with (absent) Mommy issues), Mom's favourite is the gay one, Jamal, who inherited Lucious'
musical talent but has a catastrophically bad relationship with him, while the smartest of the lot,
Andre, is no one's favourite and quietly resentful about that. Our patriarch, Lucious Lyon, is more J.R. Ewing than Henry II, character wise, and his much younger girlfriend, Anika, is far more active than poor Alais ever got to be in either play or history, but Alais has another doppelganger in the show: ( who is spoilery. )
Not in The Lion in Winter
but in actual history and having counterpoints in the show: Geoffrey's wife, Constance of Brittany (Andre's wife Rhonda, the sole white regular, which makes her an outsider in a way that actually provides a good analogue for Constance's situation), and Thomas Becket. If you haven't figured out who Becket is by the end of the pilot, you will be the end of the season. Though you could argue that the Becket role is divided into two characters the same way that of Alais is, two it: ( spoilers abound. )
As you can see via the twist on Thomas Becket, Empire
mixes the timeline up. Basically the only complaint I had after watching the pilot was that while Henry and Eleanor both
did terrible things to each other in the past, the good/bad factor with Lucious and Cookie seemed far more uneven, to wit, Cookie did absolutely nothing to Lucious and a lot for
him in the past while he let her stew in prison for 17 years. Keeping your wife captive after she waged a literal family war against you is a very different thing from abandoning your wife in prison when up to that point your relationship was terrific and she did everything for you. Having watched the entire season now, I am a bit more reconciled in that the family war still happens, only later, plus Cookie in general is such a great
Eleanor analogue. Whereas my big problem with Susan Howatch's Penmarric
, which brings Henry, Eleanor & kids into the 20th century, was that her Eleanor version, Janna, is a poor, barely literate widow when you marries Mark/Henry the rich up and coming landowner, which is wrong, wrong, wrong, because Henry married up, not down, when he married Eleanor - she was his financial, social and cultural superior. By making Cookie a fantastic music producer without whom Lucious would not have had his breakthrough in the past, when they were both poor but gifted, and who still has that talent (which he respects), Empire
makes Cookie the Queen in a truly meaningful way (as opposed to if she'd simply been his divorced wife). And we see her in action as a producer, just like Jamal and Hakeem are regularly featured as musicians. Moreover, Cookie isn't presented as perfect (if Lucious is a homophobe, Cookie is as blatantly biased against Hakeem's older girlfriend Camilla for no other reason than her age), and definitely ruthless in her own right. (True, her ( doing a spoilery thing )
but when that turns out to be impossible, there are absolutely no regrets on her part.
Cookie's not the only interesting female character around, either. Anika is presented as smart and competent as well, so is Rhonda; come to think of it, all
the Empire women are good at their jobs (even the teenager, Tiana, is far more professional than Hakeem). With the exception of Becky, Lucious' secretary, who unless I'm mistaken is played by the leading actress of Precious
, they're all Hollywood-style gorgeous, but given most of them work in the Entertainment industy, that's in-universe sense making. Of the men, the show is good in making all three sons sympathetic, though Hakeem takes the longest to warm up to. There's no real equivalent to Philip II. of France (or Philip's father Louis, Eleanor's first husband), since Lucious' biggest business rival is the owner of label on which Lucious' first songs appeared, and who still holds the publishing rights for those early songs. (Cue my inner Beatles fan going: I know that problem!) Though come to think of it: ( you could argue a spoiilery development. )
The music industry setting is very much narrative part of the show, not just convenient plot device the way the oil industry is in Dallas
; we keep seeing the characters composing, performing, producing, performing, and the way they do it is usually part of the story. Set piece example: Jamal's musical duel with Black Rambo. As for the soap opera twists, most, though not all (could have done without the ( soap cliché involving Anika and Cookie )
), work for me not despite but in their familiarity; given that the Jamal-Lucious relationship is established as so bad in the pilot and given this is among other things a soap, you can bet that eventually, a father-son reconciliation scene is in the offering (naturally, music is involved), though Lucious is Well Done Son Guy
for two of his three sons and only Jamal gets the pay off. Lucious being more J.R. than Henry II means he also falls in to the category of Walter White as the villain protagonist; while he has a few humanizing moments, you can usually count on him doing the dastardly thing.
In conclusion: fun! I'll definitely watch the second season once it has concluded and is out on dvd.