Empire's Crazy Politics Are Really Fun To Watch
Don't even pretend that you predicted everything that went down at that concert.
I have boundless questions about the season premiere of Empire. Like...does the prison where they sent Lucious not have any guards? The inmates seem free to roam at will, murdering each other and eating off real china in private rooms. Also, how did Chris Rock get cast as a street kingpin? The man has many talents, but they do not include seeming intimidating.
Yet despite its lack of internal logic, I totally get a kick out of this show. Just like last year, I can't get enough Cookie, and despite Rock's inability to bring the pain (hey-ohh! '90s reference!), I'm excited to see the parade of high-profile guest stars who are willing to turn up now that Empire has become a cultural touchstone. Already, we've got Marisa Tomei as an sexually ravenous lesbian power broker, and I'm obsessed. How many carpets will she clean in her relentless pursuit of skrilla?
Even better, Lee Daniels & Co. are using their cache to create a political soapbox. More than just parading celebrities through the opening montage at the Free Lucious concert, they're capitalizing on the audience's attention by making reference after reference to America's dispiriting spate of race-related controversies. But here's the thing: because Empire is batshit crazy, its approach to these subjects is unlike anything else on TV.
Because you know how most people take a serious tone when they discuss how black men are incarcerated about a thousand times more frequently than anyone else? NOT EMPIRE! Instead, this problem is addressed by Cookie's entrance at the Free Lucious concert. She descends from the stage in a cage, dressed as a gorilla.
Then she strips off the costume, reveals a Gucci dress underneath, and calls for a total reform of America's prison system.
So...hmmm. A black woman dressed as a gorilla. That's a remarkably loaded image that tips its hat to hundreds of years of racist hatred. And then there's the fact that Cookie only makes her speech as part of her ploy to execute a hostile takeover of Empire Records. She doesn't even want to be at the show, and she sure as hell doesn't think Lucious deserves to go free.
This kind of audacity is head-spinning. What is the show's position? That we need to see aggressive imagery -- like a black person in a monkey costume -- to be re-sensitized to racist horror? That the media (including perhaps Empire itself) may only "care" about black people as a means to an end?
Or maybe it doesn't mean that at all! I'd also accept that this entire sequence was improvised! The show refuses to clarify its motives -- or else it has every motive at once, in every scene -- and that's weirdly exciting to watch. I don't know how the creators want me to feel, and I don't even have confidence that they're in control of what's getting on screen. But that disorientation is viscerally stimulating.
This is why Porsha has become one of my favorite characters. More than just Cookie's sidekick, she has evolved into a force for chaos. Everything she does either endangers someone's life or requires a delicate political response. She will hang up on a warning call that Cookie's life is in danger because she has to run to the bathroom and "go boo boo." She will confront CNN anchor Don Lemon about his reporting on the riots in "Peterson." (She means Ferguson.) I mean...can you imagine any other series creating a black character who doesn't know what Ferguson is? Can you imagine any other series making her ignorance the setup for a joke? It feels like there's a statement there, but again, I'm not sure what it is. For now, I'm happy to keep being jolted by one outré gesture after another. Maybe next year I can figure out what I think about it all.