TV News & Reviews

Fox’s hip-hop soap opera ‘Empire’ serves us some delicious Cookie

Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is out of prison and back to lay claim to her part of Empire Enterprises in Fox’s hit “Empire.”
Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is out of prison and back to lay claim to her part of Empire Enterprises in Fox’s hit “Empire.” Fox

You don’t have to have cable to see 2015’s most talked-about show. You just have to be home on Wednesday nights in time for some Cookie.

“Empire” has been a runaway hit for Fox, a “no-she-didn’t” nighttime soap following hip-hop’s fictional royalty, the Lyon family.

By all rights, Lucious Lyon — a drug dealer turned marketing mogul who is fiercely loved and resented by his kids — should be the fascinating face of “Empire.” But he was overshadowed the moment his ex-wife strutted out of federal prison in gold stilettos.

Lucious (Oscar nominee Terrence Howard) is the Mufasa of his clan, but he can’t quite decide which of his sons he wants to hold up as the next king, Simba-style. In his mind, Andre, Jamal and Hakeem all have issues they need to address before they can take over Empire Enterprises.

For Hakeem, it’s getting rid of his con-artist cougar girlfriend Camille (model Naomi Campbell). On Wednesday’s episode, the Lyons dealt with Camille, but not before Cookie hissed, “She got her drawers wrapped around my baby’s neck. He can’t breathe!”

It turns out that Empire Enterprises got off the ground with Cookie’s money, a $400,000 investment Cookie carried drugs to earn so that Lucious could keep his nose clean and start a record label.

When she got caught, Cookie shut her mouth, and she kept it that way, even when Lucious divorced her and stopped bringing their three sons to visit. Seventeen years later, like Richie Aprile in “The Sopranos,” she wants what’s coming to her, just as Lucious is trying to take the company public and keep a scary medical diagnosis private.

“Empire” is a glorious, over-the-top mess, a “King Lear” soap opera with silly dialogue, pretty people, backstabbing galore and a soundtrack by Timbaland. It would be a tedious exercise instead of a guilty pleasure without Taraji P. Henson as Cookie, equal parts everywoman and Mama Bear in a mink coat, greeting rivals with a “Hey, Boo Boo Kitty!”

More people are tweeting about “Empire” than “The Walking Dead,” and Cookie is the topic of discussion. Scores of Internet listicles have been raining down since the show premiered in January: “42 Times You Wanted to Be Cookie.” “Every Single Fur Coat Cookie Has Worn on Empire.” “Empire’s Cookie Lyon Is Here to Inspire You With 6 Epic Motivational Posters.”

Henson is part of a recent uptick in over-40 actresses actually landing compelling lead roles on TV. Viola Davis (“How to Get Away With Murder”), Patricia Arquette (“CSI: Cyber”) and the old guard on “Orange Is the New Black” are riding the same wave.

But Cookie time is fun time. Her presence is so engaging that it’s hard to pin anything more serious on Henson’s near-flawless performance, which almost always transcends the “sassy black woman” we’re usually presented with.

Cookie won’t tolerate disrespect: Her first meeting with Hakeem, who was just a baby when Cookie went to prison, ends with an old-school broom beat-down after he scoffs at her attempts to reconcile.

Later, a bruised Hakeem gripes to his father, “She’s a psychotic animal.”

“You’re just like her,” Lucious replies.

But it’s Cookie’s relationship with Jamal, the middle child and black sheep of the family, that reveals her as the show’s hero. “Empire” uses flashbacks to show us how Lucious and Cookie reacted to the realization that their little boy might be gay: Lucious literally throws him in the garbage, but it’s Cookie’s assurances of love and acceptance that keep Jamal going, even when she has to tell him “I got you” through thick prison glass.

And Cookie seeks out Jamal first when she gets out of prison.

“Let me in,” she hollers from the street. “Y’all better have an elevator up in here. My feet hurt.” She doesn’t bat an eye at his live-in boyfriend. “For a queen, you sure do keep a messy house.”

Soon, Cookie has taken over Jamal’s music career, and we see that she’s a talented manager and producer, pushing her artists to hone their talents and embrace their personal drama to create buzz.

Lucious, on the other hand, is practically begging for us to hate him. His method of dealing with eldest son Andre’s bipolar disorder is to forbid anyone from uttering the words “mental illness.” Yeah. That’ll fix it.

“Your sexuality, that’s a choice,” he tells Jamal during a meeting about keeping him in the closet to sell more records. “You could choose to sleep with women.” Later, when Jamal considers being a full-time father to his daughter, Lucious has more opinions: “Lola don’t need to be raised in that kind of lifestyle, son.”

In Lucious’ world, weakness is shameful. So is being gay. Interracial marriage will cost you your birthright. But shooting an old friend in the face? Letting your wife do hard time for you? These things happen.

“Empire” creator Lee Daniels has said that the character of Lucious is loosely based on Jay-Z, but if Cookie is “based on” any one person, it’s probably Sylvia Robinson, the woman known as “the mother of hip-hop.”

It was Robinson, along with husband Joe, who started Sugar Hill Records, formed the Sugarhill Gang and produced 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight,” rap’s first hit single.

Robinson also signed Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and went back into the studio to produce “The Message,” establishing hip-hop as social commentary for the first time in the early ’80s.

But Cookie dresses with the lush, gold-dripped ’90s feel of Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown. Every time Henson appears onscreen, you have just enough time to absorb her latest outrageous outfit before she starts saying equally outrageous things.

Upon being threatened: “You wanna Ray Rice me?”

On her husband’s new business plan: “Sounds like you grew a vagina.”

Cookie’s on-paper credentials as an African-American woman once jailed on a drug offense must make her a tempting mouthpiece for issues of class, race and gender. But it’s Lucious who usually gives the cliched, message-laden speeches about the streets that “Empire” can’t resist. Cookie is more show, less tell. When a rival label tries to steal her talent, she challenges a room full of hard-edged hangers-on to a hooch-drinking contest and ends up the last man standing. Well, teetering. All those years making prune wine in her cell came in handy.

Last week, Cookie shook herself free of her old feelings for Lucious, even as he declared his (painfully obvious) love for her.

“You just don’t want to die alone,” she told him.

If his health continues to decline — and that seems a big if, considering the show’s success — leaving Empire Enterprises in the care of one of his imperfect offspring will be Lucious’ final mission. It’s too bad he can’t see that his obvious replacement is staring him in the face.

Even though Lucious Lyon was once ruthless enough to throw his little boy in a trash can, Cookie is the real gangster.

To reach Sara Smith, call 816-234-4375 or send email to ssmith@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SarawatchesKC.

WHERE TO WATCH

The two-hour season finale of “Empire” airs at 7 p.m. Wednesday on Fox. Catch up on the entire season on Fox.com.

Lil’ Kim

Kimberly Jones’ fearless fashion — and rivalry with Foxy Brown — changed the look of rap in the ’90s. She also put out three platinum albums and served one year in jail for perjury.

Alexis Carrington

Joan Collins’ iconic one-percenter villain on ‘Dynasty’ kept her poise in the bedroom, the executive boardroom and her jail cell from 1981-89.

Perri ‘Pebbles’ Reid

She was a singer before she married producer L.A. Reid and created R&B supergroup TLC. Drama over her management of the group ended in bankruptcy, lawsuits and the Reids’ divorce.

Sylvia Robinson

The “mother of hip-hop” was the producer behind the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” then Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message.”

Eleanor of Aquitaine

“Empire” is a thinly disguised version of “The Lion in Winter,” the story of Henry II, his three scheming sons and his former wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Katharine Hepburn rocked the 1968 movie version.

Miss Ellie Ewing

The oil family’s matriarch had to stop her sons J.R. and Bobby from destroying each other again and again, especially after the death of her beloved husband, Jock.

My three sons

Other trios of male heirs competing for the top spot in the family business:

John F., Robert F. and Edward “Teddy” Kennedy

Hades, Poseidon and Zeus, sons of Greek god Cronos

Fredo, Michael and Sonny Corleone, “The Godfather”

Bobby and J.R. Ewing and Ray Krebbs, “Dallas”

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