Empire is built around Cookie but she’s not the only scene-chewing monster
Empire ( Tuesday, E4) is a Timbaland-soundtracked hip-hop soap opera, or if you prefer, hip-hopera, formed in the same frothy cauldron of high camp musicality as Nashville and Glee.
Terrence Howard plays Lucious Lyon, not an actual lion, which would be awesome, but a secretly dying, cravat-wearing music mogul who will leave his “empire” to one of three sons – party-boy rapper Hakeem, sweet, talented blacksheep Jamal or business-like schemer Andre – as long as one of them can find the mysterious jade monkey/otherwise prove their worthiness.
Lucious’s plans are complicated by his ex-wife, the glamorous, sharp-tongued Cookie, just out of prison for crimes she most definitely committed. In fact, she committed them with Lucious and now wants to take half of his “empire”. Her tactic for doing this involves barging into various boardrooms, mansions and loft-apartments to throw devastating shade.
Cookie is brilliant. She also shares a name with one of my favourite ever television characters – Cookie Monster. And the similarities don’t stop there.
Both Cookie and Cookie Monster are fabulous divas who know what they want. Cookie Monster wants cookies. Cookie wants “what’s mine” (what’s “hers” isn’t specified at this point, but it’s possibly cookies).
Cookie is forever storming into rooms demanding “what’s mine”. Cookie Monster can’t storm into rooms because he has no legs, but he looms up from behind a wall demanding cookies . . . which I think you’ll agree is essentially the same motif.
Like a town planner, Cookie is obsessed with “the street” (“The streets ain’t made for everybody,” she says excellently in this episode. “That’s why they made sidewalks”). Cookie Monster is also obsessed with “the street”, although he’s specifically talking about Sesame Street.
Both Cookie and Cookie Monster talk about themselves in the third person.
Both Cookie and Cookie Monster are covered in exquisite fur.
Anyway, Cookie is a cat-fight-in-aswimming-pool away from being as iconically amazing as Cookie Monster and/or Alexis in Dynasty. In this week’s episode, she takes control of Jamal’s career because Jamal is gay and Lucious Lyon is horribly homophobic. Lucious Lyon doesn’t want Jamal playing at his new club because: “I’m not going to have it branded a homosexual club.” This is unlikely really, as the club is called Leviticus, named after the most homophobic book of the bible.
Lucious Lyon has other problems. One of his biggest signings, Kid Fo-Fo (presumably the Godzuki-like sidekick of “Adult Fo-Fo”) has become embroiled in a shooting scandal. His eldest son Andre is a power-hungry business-suit who narrates evil plans to his nefarious wife. Andre also has mental- health issues and recently, his nefarious wife tells him, he’s begun sleep-talking about himself in the third person (like mother, like son, I guess). His nefarious wife tells him to take his medication.
And oh, I nearly forgot, last week Lucious shot his oldest friend Bunky in the face (Bunky was planning to out him as “nothing but a punk-ass gangster”).
Lucious is so busy he’s largely not worrying about last week’s murder. Instead he’s focused on launching Hakeem’s career with a big concert at Leviticus that Cookie wants for Jamal. All Hakeem has to do is not mess things up. So Hakeem goes to a fancy restaurant, wees on the floor and makes a YouTube video about how Barack Obama is “a sell-out”.
Barack Obama is a significant off-screen character in Empire. Lucious gets him on the phone to apologise for Hakeem, C3PO-ing Barack’s unheard dialogue like Obama is a presidential R2D2. “Come on Barack, you know you don’t have to use this kind of language,” says Lucious, hopefully prefiguring future episodes in which he says: “Now, now Barack, don’t bomb Russia” or “But Barack, a zeppelin expedition to Persia is madness itself.”
Some viewers (and one character) have compared Empire’s plot to King Lear. This makes sense, I suppose, in the same way it does to compare Breaking Bad to Macbeth or He-Man to Hamlet. But Empire is really the latest entertaining iteration of a TV-only genre of post-ironic melodrama that’s simultaneously deathly serious and eyebrow-archingly self-aware.
While Empire is high-concept, high-speed television, over on BBC 4 they’re going “slow”. This means a week of documentaries without music or voiceovers, in which cameras lovingly frame sleepy suburbs to the sound of birdsong ( The Dawn Chorus, Monday) or linger over footage of a man building a chair, roughly in real time ( Handmade:
Wood, Wednesday). Once you get used to the idea that Joey Essex isn’t going to smash through the window and accidentally nail himself to the wall, or that the birds aren’t competing for a record contract, this is lovely mesmerising stuff.
Watching Wood, in particular, I sink into a trance. Sadly, I don’t look at the carpenter hammering and sawing and think: “In a post-apocalyptic world, I could use those tools to make a chair.”
No, I think “in a post-apocalyptic world I could use those tools to make someone else give me a chair.” And I’m pretty sure that’s what both Cookie and Cookie Monster would do, the big divas.
Cookie and Cookie Monster are fabulous divas who know what they want. Cookie Monster wants cookies. Cookie wants ‘what’s mine’ (possibly cookies)