Cookie adds flavour to TV phenomenon 'Empire'

  • TV
  • Tuesday, 17 Mar 2015

Woman of interest: Henson (left) has been dubbed ‘queen of primetime’ following her fearless performance as Cookie on Empire. Photo: Fox

The matriarch on the hip-hop soap opera is a cracker.

TALK at the office coffee corner is all about Empire. And there is plenty to talk about.

It’s been written that Empire is the greatest thing to ever happen to television. Since its debut in the United States in January the series has been racking up ratings and viewership numbers week on week.

Its success is due to the music, some TV critics say; others credit the realism. There’s also the opinion that the shows created by “the most powerful woman working in TV”, Shonda Rhimes (who tweeted her love for Empire), have something to do with it – Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder have managed to draw the segment of the American TV-watching public that wasn’t catered to before, the same one now glued to Empire.

Which doesn’t really concern us armchair critics back at the coffee corner. We do have issues with the show, though, and one of them is that every storyline seems to have been ripped from the headlines: ALS, bipolar disorder, homosexuality, racial prejudice, violence instigated by gangsta rap lyrics. So. Much. Drama.

But this is a soap opera, after all, and we have to suspend disbelief. The series is set in the world of hip-hop, and revolves around the Lyon family, headed by Lucious (Terrence Howard), former drug dealer/gangsta rapper-turned-music mogul. He is dying and like Shakespeare’s King Lear, he has to choose an heir among his three sons.

Lucious is a narcissist, homophobe and bigot. He detests his middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) for being gay and deems his eldest son Andre (Trai Byers) unworthy to take over the company because he married a white woman – even as he himself is engaged to the biracial Anika (Grace Gealey). Lucious favours his youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), a replica of himself.

Creator Lee Daniels (of The Butler fame) has placed considerable importance on the music and hired super producer Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley for all the original music on the series. It’s not what I normally listen to, but the hooks in some songs have already become earworms.

Now, if none of that sounds interesting enough to get you to watch Empire, we have just one word for you: Cookie.

Woman of interest: Taraji P. Henson (left) has been dubbed ‘queen of prime time’ following her fearless performance as Cookie on Empire. Photo: Fox

Cookie is Lucious’ ex-wife, who financed her husband’s early career with money from running drugs. She gets arrested and is sentenced to 30 years in prison, but gets out after 17 years (for good behaviour, she tells Jamal, although there may be more to it than that). She is now determined to reconnect with her three sons and get a piece of the music empire she helped create.

Cookie steals the show from the get-go. She makes an impression in her first appearance, strutting out of jail as if she’s on the fashion runway in her pre-prison garb of white fur coat, leopard-print mini dress, enormous hoop earrings and hair severely pulled back in a high ponytail.

Taraji P. Henson plays Cookie, already dubbed the “queen of prime time”. After her three-year stint on Person Of Interest, she didn’t want to do another TV show, but her agent kept pestering her to read the script for Empire. When she finally did, she knew she wanted the part of Cookie.

Henson told the women of TV talk show The View that she has one of those faces that people think they’ve seen before on film or TV but cannot quite place. Well, everyone is going to recognise her now.

Daniels said he drew his inspiration for Cookie from Joan Collins on Dynasty, as well as actual people in his life such as his “sister and other women that I know”.

For Henson, however, it was her dad who was like Cookie, and we can only assume that he is a straight-talking, no-nonsense kind of person with a way with words because Cookie has some of the most memorable facial expressions and one-liners. She takes an instant dislike to Anika and has many unkind names for her – a favourite is Boo Boo Kitty, which Henson apparently came up with herself.

“She’ll improv stuff and it’ll be hysterical,” co-creator Danny Strong told E! Online.

What Cookie does is just as comical: throwing one of her heels at Lucious as he walks away (how did she get strappy gladiator shoes off so quickly?) and beating Hakeem with a broom (I know her action shouldn’t be condoned but Hakeem is so disrespectful, vulgar and entitled!). This character is simply electric.

But despite her trash talking and cringeworthy actions, Cookie has a soft side, and it’s nice to watch the tender relationship she has with Jamal, who was the only Lyon who visited her in prison.

I don’t know if Empire is the greatest thing on television right now, but Cookie is a great draw and I’m curious to see what she gets up to.

Besides, we all know what goes well with coffee.

Empire airs every Tuesday at 9.40pm on Star World (Astro Ch 711).

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