In a flashback, Jamal Lyon, then a young child, dons his mother’s high heels and headscarf then parades downstairs where Lucious and his friends are gathered, which leads to a livid Lucious Lyon picking up his son and throwing him in a trashcan outside. Flash back to the present, and Cookie, Lucious’ ex-wife, is released from prison and Lucious shoots a close friend in the eye.
These jaw-dropping events took place in the 2015 series premiere of Fox’s “Empire.” The creators, Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, also act as writers for and executive producers of the show, which centers around the Lyon family and their battle to remain in control of their record label, Empire Entertainment. Strong pitched the series to another producer on the show as “King Lear in the world of hip-hop.”
In the pilot episode, viewers learn that Lucious is dying of ALS and he plans to leave Empire Entertainment to one of his three sons. The oldest is Andre, an ivy-league educated business school grad with bipolar disorder; the middle child is Jamal, an R& B singer who is gay, and the youngest is Hakeem, an emerging rapper.
Each son has a flaw, like Andre’s lack of musical abilities, Jamal’s homosexuality and Hakeem’s sense of entitlement, that might prevent him from inheriting the company. Throwing a wrench in Lucious’ plans is Cookie, who demands her half of the company back following her sudden prison release. The series takes a turn when viewers learn at the end of the first season (and maybe they knew all along) that Lucious isn’t really dying.
2016 brought the premiere of Daniels’ and Tom Donaghy’s latest musical drama creation, “Star,” which also airs on Fox and focuses on an emerging R&B girls group Take Three and their struggle to launch a successful music career. Like “Empire,” “Star” features over-the-top drama, larger-than-life characters and original music created just for the show. At first, I didn’t plan on watching “Star” because it seemed like it would be too similar to “Empire,” but the first few episodes surprised me. Now, I definitely prefer “Star” of the two shows and here is why.
Having watched the first three seasons of “Empire” (I haven’t seen the fourth), I’ve come to realize that I don’t really care for the main characters Lucious and Cookie. Lucious, the aggressive antihero, is the show’s main villain. In the second and third seasons, viewers learn more about his past to understand what makes him so cruel. He didn’t have a good home life growing up: his dad was killed and his mother had a severe case of bipolar disorder, so he was left to be raised by the streets.
Despite the writers’ attempts to humanize him, Lucious still comes off as evil. He commits acts of violence against people because they inconvenience him in some way. Rather than feeling remorseful for his brutal actions, he only seems worry about getting caught. When he shot and killed his friend, Bunkie, Lucious didn’t seem to care that he was dead as much as he cared about the police starting an investigation.
I know people are supposed to love Cookie, but I found her slightly childish rather than empowering. When she doesn’t get what she wants, she tends to lose it, acting really impulsively. In one scene, Cookie slaps Nessa, Andre’s sort-of girlfriend (their relationship was never clearly established), because she keeps on interrupting her when she is speaking. The YouTube clip on Empire’s channel is even titled “Cookie Puts Nessa in Her Place” but there wasn’t any reason for Nessa to be put in place when she was just giving her honest opinion.
In contrast, on “Star,” the main characters’ love for each other overpowers their flaws, making them more likeable. Although the protagonist Star Davis is definitely narcissistic, she’s also fiercely protective of her sister Simone. Star doesn’t even think twice when she stabs Simone’s sexually abusive foster father in the pilot episode. Simone, who struggles with substance abuse, is fiercely loyal to the ones that she loves, such as Star and Alex.
Alex, a Juilliard dropout and daughter of a famous rock star, could have been really snobby but she actually ends up being fairly down to earth. She easily gives up her charmed life to move to Atlanta with Star and Simone and live with their godmother Carlotta.
Another reason I prefer “Star” to “Empire” is that I found it difficult to root for the relationships in “Empire.” Lucious is a horrible father, often unnecessarily pitting his sons against each other. In the first season, when he tells his sons he’ll leave Empire Entertainment to only one of them, it’s hard to understand why they can’t all have a piece of the Empire — it’s a really large company after all. Nonetheless, his decision ignites drama and competition among the three siblings as they fight for control of the company.
Some people may ship Lucious and Cookie, but I don’t like the dynamics of their relationship. Lucious is very cruel to Cookie and yet she always finds her way back to him. He makes decisions that hurt her — like marrying his ex-fiancée, Anika, so she won’t testify against him in Season 2 — and meddles in her love life by sabotaging her relationship with a local politician in Season 3. If Cookie is his one and only, Lucious could afford to be a little bit nicer to her.
The best relationships on the show are between the Lyon sons (well, when Andre isn’t in steal-the-empire mode) and the sons and Cookie. Cookie is a good mom, and viewers can see that she truly cares for each son.
I like the relationships on “Star” better, and not just the romantic ones. The friendships and the family-like atmosphere the cast gives off are really nice touches to the series. Alex forms an instant bond with Star and Simone, complete with inside jokes. Carlotta becomes a maternal figure to the girls when she opens her home to them and she eventually becomes their manager. When Alex starts dating the grandson of Carlotta’s neighbor, Derek, he is very supportive of Alex’s singing career and she is in return supportive of his activism.
Although “Star” isn’t devoid of toxic relationships — Star’s Season 1 boyfriend is physically abusive and Alex’s mother struggles with alcoholism putting a strain on their relationship — the show doesn’t forget to put a spotlight on the positive relationships.
Lastly, the musical performances in “Star” are more fun. “Empire’s” musical performances happen naturally, like in a recording studio or on a stage. However, I like that the actors in “Star” sometimes perform songs in more of a surreal sense because it gives viewers a sneak peek into the characters’ minds. For example, in the first season, an overdose puts Simone in the hospital, but the group still needs to record a song. They sing in what looks like a communal shower, but then the scene flashes to them dancing through the hospital with backup dancers for a lively performance that wouldn’t be the same if they just sang in the shower the whole time.
My preference for “Star” doesn’t mean I find the cast of “Empire” any less talented. I think both casts have great acting and musical abilities, but I just didn’t enjoy watching “Empire” as much. Kudos to Lee Daniels and the writers on both shows for telling stories that need to be told.