Wednesday, October 21, 2015

REVIEW: 'Empire' - Andre Confesses His Sins, Jamal Works with Ne-Yo and Hakeem Flirts with Danger in 'Be True'

FOX's Empire - Episode 2.05 "Be True"

Over at Lyon Dynasty, Cookie works with Laz (Adam Rodriguez) to throw "Cookie Lyon's Block Party," a big event to launch their company, showcase their artists and premiere a signature Dynasty anthem written by Hakeem. Jamal gets busy working on his music with Ne-Yo. Hakeem begins a tender romance with the lead singer of his girl group. Andre takes steps to rid his soul of past sins.

The gangster tactics on Empire this season are starting to get a little overwhelming. It's an important part of the show. Lucious is the man in charge. All federal charges against him have been dropped. But he's still a monster who resorts to these very violent tactics in order to win his battles. He's an icon who believes himself to be the most important person in the universe. He still has a very street mentality. So, the show has become a little less about the music and more about the ugly war between the two rival companies. It's a big deal that Cookie and Hakeem are starting over and fighting their way to the top. Of course, there would be people out there - other than Lucious - who want to manipulate that and get a piece of the money. It's just not all that dramatically interesting to watch. "Be True" is filled with surprising moments that are suppose to amuse and tantalize the audience. And yet, they mostly play as contrivances that aren't fun to watch and don't make a whole lot of sense.

Lucious and his team used dirty tricks in order to beat the charges filed against him. Because they were able to manipulate the system, Lucious was able to walk as a free man while Roxanne Ford became a disgraced former prosecutor. Just because he is now celebrating freedom doesn't make him a better man to his family. In fact, he is just as vicious and delusional as he was before. He and Thirsty are still walking that morally unethical line. They actually send thugs to intimidate and steal from Lyon Dynasty. Those are moments meant to highlight just how precarious the streets are where the Dynasty is coming together. Cookie has her eye on the big picture but the world around her is a more dangerous threat at the moment. And yet, that entire threat is vague and cryptic. It's unclear if Lucious was the person who sent those thugs to intimidate and steal from Tiana. He did send the guys to steal the music masters but who got stopped when Cookie and her new friend Laz pulled guns on them. But it still feels like other forces are at play - which are basically confirmed in the big cliffhanger.

It is suppose to be shocking that the episode closes with Hakeem out for a run and getting kidnapped by some unknown perpetrators. And yet, it's such a laughable twist that has no established stakes to it. It feels like the show only thinks this family can be united when it faces some outside threat. Lucious was able to beat the legal system. So now, something new needed to happen that would force Lucious and Cookie to work together again. It's a sensationalized way to tell the story. It's a pure soap opera moment but without the fun or the appeal to make it work. It's also embracing a side of the narrative that the show has never done all that well. Lucious and Cookie know what it's like to live on the streets. That's what can sometimes make them more sympathetic figures. But this story twist largely happens as a way to shock the audience. It may force Hakeem to mature in a way that he has never been willing to before. It could provide him with ample story to tell in his music. But it still plays as too far away from what the strength of the show is: the music.

The other stories at play in this episode are also fairly boring. They aren't bad to the point that it makes one question the narrative direction the show is going in. But they are still pretty lackluster. First up is the relationship drama of Jamal. He is trying to decide whether or not to bring Michael on tour with him. Lucious and guest star Ne-Yo are giving him conflicting advice. The situation is made more complicated because creepy photographer Chase desperately wants to sleep with both of them. He's an appalling character meant to stir up some drama in this relationship. And yet, the relationship doesn't really mean anything. It's hard to feel betrayed when Michael takes Chase up on his offer and Jamal doesn't. This relationship exists solely as something that Jamal talks about. He keeps saying things are good. But things are never really shown to be good. They are largely just seen as something stable and bland. Michael doesn't have a real personality outside of this relationship. Jamal is a compelling character. And yet, the importance of this relationship to him hasn't been properly established. So again, it's hard to feel anything when Jamal decides to take Michael with him on tour only for him to catch Michael and Chase in the act.

Similarly, it was a compelling idea to have Andre confess his sins to the rest of the family. He's taking a turn for the religious. That's where he is finding hope and love the most right now. Last year, he was all about scheming in order to take the company away from his brothers. That never went his way. Now, he is finally back in Lucious' good graces. He compromises that by wanting to do things differently than his father - who believes his word is greater than any god. But the various confessions and his baptism aren't all that dramatically interesting. Andre is trying to come to terms with himself in a word that he feels out-of-place in. It felt weird having him at that stripper party Lucious threw himself in the Empire conference room. Andre is trying his best to get his family to better understand him in the hopes of having a better relationship with all of them in the future. He wants to be a good person so he can be a good father. When the time comes for his baptism though, the rest of the family care about themselves more than they care about the event they've come to the church for. That's significant but Andre and Rhonda only have brief reactions to it. That didn't feel like a good place to end the story. But it's where it needed to end in order to produce that final cliffhanger.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Be True" was written by Wendy Calhoun, JaNeika James & JaSheika James and directed by Kevin Bray.
  • People get fired all the time on this show but they keep getting rehired in the next episode. In this case, that person is Porsha who got Cookie arrested last week and is welcomed back simply because she brings a cute dog with her.
  • There is definitely a spark between Cookie and Adam Rodriguez's Laz. She appreciates how much he gives it to her straight. Plus, they both pulled out guns so they are of the same mindset when it comes to the security threats to this company at the moment.
  • When Hakeem's not too busy getting kidnapped, he's trying to sleep with every female artist he comes into contact with. It's a somewhat sleazy quality about him. He loves Laura's talent but it's creepy when he stays grinding up on her. Good for her for standing up for herself and telling him no. That's not how he should be acting in that situation as the group's producer - especially if he wants anyone to take it seriously.
  • Lucious promised to produce Jamal's album. And yet, he seemed more focused on helping Freida with her music than Jamal. At least Jamal had Ne-Yo though - who was a much better influence anyway. 
  • Neither Lucious nor Cookie want to collect Vernon's ashes. Both are also aware that there's no way he would commit suicide like the official story says.