Blu-ray Review: Empire: The Complete First Season

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One of 2015's undeniable breakout TV hits arrives on Blu-ray via 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The three-disc Empire: The Complete First Season Blu-ray contains all 12 first-season episodes presented in 1080p high definition and DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless audio. The latter is even more important than for most shows, seeing as bass-heavy R&B and hip hop is such an integral part of Empire. That said, one needn't be enamored of that specific genre of music to get totally hooked on the glamorous (and sometimes criminal) lifestyles of its characters. This is a seriously addictive show, thanks to phenomenally effective storytelling that keeps amping up the drama from one episode to the next.

First off, Empire reunites Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, who were so incredible together in Hustle & Flow in 2005. Howard was nominated for an Academy Award for that movie (Henson should've been) and has since gone on to build a diverse filmography (not to suggest he hadn't been working before Hustle, it's just that the Oscar nod sent his career into overdrive). Here he plays Lucious Lyon, a powerful music mogul who operates the influential Empire Entertainment, home to a host of music's hottest hit-makers. His ex-wife Cookie (Henson), upon her release from prison after 17 years, has returned to the fold in an attempt to stake her claim in the company she helped create. She barely knows her three sons, all of whom are involved in Empire Entertaiment. Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) are performers, while their emotionally troubled businessman brother Andre (Trai Byers) is gunning for control of the company.

The biggest strength of Empire is the constantly churning, twisting plot. The writers are constantly stirring the waters as this group of professionals, some of whom (including Lucious and Cookie) are alarmingly unscrupulous. We’re told very early on that Lucious is battling ALS; most of his family, friends, and associates are in the dark about his illness. We're never allowed any easy sympathizing, however, as some of Lucious' business decisions are definitely of the illegal and unethical variety. Meanwhile, the emotional core of the show lies in Cookie's attempts to reconnect with her estranged sons. Singer Jamal is gay, something that Lucious is seriously uncomfortable with (he literally tried to throw him out in the garbage when Jamal was a child). As such, Jamal's talent is ignored by Lucious—which in turn sets Cookie on a fierce corrective mission. Rapper Hakeem is Lucious’ favorite and he aims to make him a star.

That's pretty much the setup, yet it barely scratches the surface of the various supporting characters and the roles they play in the greater Empire Entertainment scenario. Bolstered by a magnetic performance by Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, it’s not at all difficult to see how Empire became such a ratings powerhouse for Fox early in 2015.

Top notch production values are well represented on Fox's Blu-ray, with transfer that are every bit as sharp and detailed as what we've come to expect from big budget, major network shows. Again, it's the punchy DTS-HD MA surround mixes that will capture most listeners' attention. The score by Fil Eisler and the thumping tunes, crafted by a team of producers and songwriters led by Timbaland, sound lively and exciting throughout.

Speaking of the music of Empire, fans will find plenty of it in the supplemental features. Each of the three discs boasts "uncut music performances," adding up to over a half hour of expanded content. There are also three music videos ("What Is Love," "Power of the Empire," "Come Away With Me"). Series co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, along with several other participants (including stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson), provide audio commentary for the pilot episode. Otherwise, we just get a couple of brief featurettes: "Empire: It's In the Music" (nine minutes) and "The Empire of Style" (eight minutes).

The second season of Empire premiered on September 23, so if you’re not up to date now’s the time.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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