Screen test

TV Review: Hip-hop drama Empire is deliciously trashy

Politically incorrect Empire has hot pop- cultural references and heart-rending scenes

Cards on the table: this reviewer is not a big fan of musicals.

But if anything can cure an allergy to seeing actors break into song for no good reason, it is the new TV drama Empire- a deliciously trashy saga about a family vying for control of a record label.

It opens as rapper-turned-music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) learns he is dying of a terminal disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, and hastens to find a successor for the company he founded, Empire Records.

This pits his three sons against one another in a King Learesque contest for his approval.

The younger two, Hakeem and Jamal, have burgeoning careers as recording artists and the eldest, the strait-laced Stanford MBA graduate Andre, uses his business acumen to take the company public.

Also entering the fray is Cookie Lyon (Taraji Henson), the boys' mother, who has served a long prison sentence after taking the fall for Lucious on drug charges.

Now she is out and wants a piece of the company she helped found.

Feeling sidelined because he is the lone suit in a family of musical geniuses, Andre schemes to have Cookie back Jamal (who is spurned by his father because he is gay) against Hakeem, the apple of Lucious' eye.

A hip-hop soap opera, the series often descends into histrionics, high camp and, yes, multiple scenes where Jamal, Hakeem and Lucious and others bust out performances a la Glee.

One might have expected this and the specificity of the musical genre would limit the show's appeal.

But it has attracted a large audience in the United States, where its politically incorrect handling of issues such as race and sexuality, and the characters' use and reappropriation of certain slurs has also created a bit of controversy.

While the "hip-hopera" and melodramatic aspects of the show can make it feel like a throwback, everything else is daring and zeitgeisty, not to mention thoroughly entertaining.

There are piping-hot pop-cultural references - with cheeky nods to the real-life antics of stars such as Jay Z, Beyonce, Chris Brown and Rihanna - as well as Henson's show-stealing performance as Cookie.

From Cookie's mouth comes countless catchphrase-worthy quips (everyone should start referring to an ex-husband's younger girlfriend as "Boo Boo Kitty") and, in a startling scene, she even beats her grown son with a broom when he disrespects her.

Underpinning it all is a nuanced look at the complexity of familial love, with heart-rending scenes such as the one where Lucious flies into a rage at seeing Jamal put on his mother's high heels, then stuffs the boy into a garbage can - a story inspired by director Lee Daniels' own childhood.

One hopes that Daniels and writer Danny Strong, who teamed up on the 2013 civil rights film The Butler, can keep this good stuff coming even as they follow their over-the-top storyline to its sudsy conclusion.

Another new show, Battle Creek, might convert viewers to another species of TV show that leaves some cold: the police procedural.

Vince Gilligan and David Shore, the creators of Breaking Bad and House, respectively, have put their own spin on the criminal-investigation format by setting their series in a chronically underfunded police department in the small Midwestern town of Battle Creek.

Here, even the star detective, Russ Agnew (Dean Winters), routinely bungles his cases because of failing equipment and the occasional questionable judgment call.

Whether criminal (CSI and NCIS), legal (The Good Wife) or medical (House), most procedural dramas centre on protagonists with almost savant-like professional capabilities, so it is refreshing to see Agnew make one comical blunder after another.

The interpersonal character stuff that usually pads out the rest of a show like this is less original.

There is the standard odd-couple, buddy-cop pairing as Agnew suddenly finds himself with a new partner, Special Agent Milt Chamberlain (Josh Duhamel), who is tasked to set up a Federal Bureau of Investigation field office in the town.

But the formula is saved by some very funny writing, which distributes comedic zingers evenly across a supporting cast that includes Kal Penn (Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, 2004) and the Oscar-nominated English actress Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs, 2011).

Some of the biggest laughs come when everyone in the department is swept off their feet by the handsome Chamberlain, with his sharp suits, toothpaste smile and flashy new gear.

Chamberlain is also absurdly well- connected, with judges on speed dial and pictures of himself playing golf with President Barrack Obama. This and his Boy Scout attitude and optimistic naivete are particularly grating for Agnew, who sneers that Chamberlain must have had a charmed childhood, with "a goldfish and a dog that never died".

The actual crimes solved on the show are not especially exciting.

The writers seem to be reaching for the charmingly offbeat - the second case has the pair trying to bust a maple-syrup cartel - than the procedurally groundbreaking.

Still, it is a nice addition to a genre that has become all too predictable. And as typically goes with police procedurals, viewers come for the crime but stay for the characters, so it is smart to focus on that when launching such a new show.

stlife@sph.com.sg