Hip-hop drama Empire is Fox's latest breakout hit, featuring an award-winning cast and crew. Created by Oscar winners Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, the King Lear-inspired family drama has been a ratings boon for Fox, with viewership growing each week since its Jan. 7 premiere.
The show's popularity is due in no small part to an incredible cast. Former Hustle & Flow co-stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson electrify as Empire Entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon and his ex-wife Cookie, recently released from jail for the drug hustling charges that gave the couple the capital to start their Empire. Newcomers Trai Byers, Jussie Smollett, and Bryshere Gray stand out as the three Lyon sons and guest stars like Cuba Gooding Jr., Naomi Campbell, and Gabourey Sidibe add to the awesome drama.
Here's nine things you need to know to catch up on Empire:
1. Cookie. Is. Queen.
Sure, sure the show starts out following hustler-turned-rapper-turned-mogul Lucious Lyon, but the second Cookie struts out of jail in her leopard print and fur coat, you know who the real star is. From her fierce love for her sons to her determination to reclaim her share of Empire Entertainment, we can’t wait to see what’s coming as Cookie gets back in the game.
2. The Prodigal Sons
The three Lyon sons couldn’t be more different, but each is talented and powerful in his own way. The struggle for the keys to the kingdom between business-minded Andre (Byers), sensitive songwriter Jamal (Smollett), and brash impresario Hakeem (Gray) is going to make for a great power struggle and a compelling watch.
3. 17 Years Is a Long Time
Cookie quickly finds out that her time in jail has affected not just her life, but the entire world she left behind. Empire Entertainment, which started with her and Lucious playing songs in a garage, is now a multi-million dollar entertainment company, poised to enter the market with a major IPO.
And Lucious has moved on as well. After divorcing Cookie while she was locked up, he is now dating Empire's young head of A&R, Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey). Needless to say, Anika and Cookie do NOT get along.
4. Everybody's Got Issues
Jamal’s homosexuality is far from the biggest secret in the Lyon family. Hakeem’s icy relationship with his mother has clearly led to some mommy issues, Andre’s mismanagement of his bipolar disorder is bound to lead to dire consequences, and Cookie’s in bed with the FBI! Plus, how long is it before the cops come knocking on Lucious’ door about the eyewitness that saw him shoot long-time friend (and Cookie’s cousin) Bunky and leave him for dead in the Hudson River?
5. There Will Be Some Epic Fights...
The Cookie vs. Anika showdown has already jumped off in the first three episodes, but there are plenty of brawls brewing within the world of Empire. For one, how will Hakeem's year-long relationship with older woman Camilla (Naomi Campbell) affect his budding romance with young starlet Tiana (Serayah)? Will jealousy rear its ugly head between Lucious and songwriter Puma (Cuba Gooding Jr.), who’s pined after Cookie for years? What else does Andre’s manipulative wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) have up her sleeve? And ultimately, will Andre's plan to pit his younger siblings against each other lead to a Lyon Brothers brawl?
6. …And Some AMAZING Songs
Singer Serayah’s character Tiana has already performed some impressive numbers in the first three episodes as Empire Entertainment's newest star, but it’s the young two Lyon boys that we can’t wait to see more from. Jamal and Hakeem are creating great songs separately AND as a duo. Their electrifying "No Apologies" performance at the Leviticus club in episode two is hopefully a preview of awesome numbers to come.
7. The Best Bit Players
Empire has some stellar scene stealers so far in Gabourey Sidibe as Lucious’ executive assistant Becky and Ta'Rhonda Jones as Cookie’s less-than-competant assistant Porsha. With planned cameos from Courtney Love, Macy Gray, and creator Lee Daniels' Instagram claim that he's trying to get Denzel Washington for a guest role, the stars are just going to keep shining on Empire.
8. Tackling the Issues
Amidst the delightful soapy drama, Empire has also proven itself to be unafraid to tackle some important issues, like police brutality and LGBT acceptance. After a video of a drunken Hakeem belligerently taunting the cops and mocking the government goes viral, Lucious explodes at his son for not only making him apologize to the president, but also for putting himself in danger.
"Do you know the world that we live in today?" he asks Hakeem. "Do you have any idea what those cops could have done to you?"
Lucious' homophobia and life-long abusive treatment of Jamal is also a recurring theme that affects the Lyon family as well as Jamal’s budding musical career. Lucious hands Jamal’s career off to Cookie without much more than a second thought, ashamed of his talented son for what he believes to be a lifestyle choice and unable to believe that he will find success as an openly gay singer-songwriter.
The father and son confrontation at the end of the third episode is one of the series' most powerful scenes to date. Lucious visits Jamal and his live-in boyfriend Michael (Rafael de La Fuente) at his apartment after Jamal has stormed out of a family dinner over his father’s constant disapproval and threats to cut him off.
"I don’t understand you," Lucious starts, before Jamal finally snaps.
"You don’t have to understand me!" Jamal interrupts. "You don’t have to understand me, or have anything to do with me. I’m a man! So you can keep your stupid-ass song and your money and whatever else that Lucious Lyon thinks that he owns. My obedience is no longer for sale."
9. All Is Not as It Seems
Lucious cops to grooming his boys to take over Empire Entertainment, but what he’s not telling anyone (yet) is that day might come sooner than he’d like. Diagnosed with ALS, the larger-than-life Lucious Lyon is brought down to Earth by the knowledge that he may have less than three years to round out his legacy. By the end of episode three, Hakeem still seems to be the front-runner in his father’s eyes, though spurned son Jamal has finally been motivated to larger aspirations and plans to attempt his own takeover of the Empire, by force.
If you’re hooked on the drama, you’re in luck, as Empire has already been renewed for a second season. Watch it on Fox, Wednesdays at 9/8c, or online at Fox.com or Hulu.