An odd realization came to me that Netflix’s Luke Cage series—the series, not the man—is a sort of Nick Carraway to Empire’s Tom Buchanan. (This caught me as much off-guard as the somewhat less recent but equally surprising realization that the titular, secondary protagonist of Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, was a Black man engaged in the infrequently discussed but historically relevant act or art of passing . . . but that’s a topic for another entry.) I’d recently finished watching Luke Cage and had been getting my wife caught up on Empire, as her students, like millions of other television viewers, have become wholly enraptured in the weekly melodrama. I thought it’d be both interesting and starkly, topically relevant to review both shows side by side, through the somewhat unorthodox lens of characters from The Great Gatsby. Granted, the only thing the two series they really have in common are that both shows are immensely popular right now and feature predominantly non-White casts, but it seemed that the parallels to the Jazz Age allegories of St. Paul’s favorite literary son were uncannily accurate.
Like their literary counterparts in Fitzgerald’s novel, neither series is particularly admirable. Empire, much like Tom, owns what it is, warts and all, and makes no apologies for it. There are many attributes that we will undoubtedly view in hindsight as embarrassingly insensitive and tone deaf, but presently, Empire is junk-food TV in the truest sense of the term. There’s nothing to be gained from viewing other than entertainment via histrionic spectacle. The performances of the overwhelming majority of the cast—save for masterful, screen-chewing turns by Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson—are so over-the-top that even if the show did attempt to make a deeper statement than your average daytime soap opera, it would be lost behind its seemingly endless revolving door of cameos, misguidedly ambitious attempts at poignancy, mediocre direction, awkwardly disruptive music sequences, mile-a-minute cliffhangers, and star-crossed plot twists. But it brandishes these same ostensibly negative production attributes with a proud and genuine passion, and that’s what makes Empire so fantastic: it owns what it is.
Just as Tom Buchanan has a confidence Gatsby can’t match because it’s a confidence born of authenticity, every actor on the Empire set chews every bit of scenery every second they’re on camera, because they can take comfort in the knowledge of exactly what kind of show they’re making. That level of self-awareness would sink lesser programs, but for Empire, it provides an unmatched energy, tone, and occasional irreverence that it both needs, for sake of the viewer, and deserves for sake of entertainment.
Empire centers on the Lyon family, led by drug-dealer-turned-music-mogul and CEO of Empire Entertainment Lucious Lyon (played unnecessarily well by Terrence Howard) and Cookie (also played way more amazingly than necessary by Taraji P. Henson). The latter has just been released from prison after having spent the past 17 years taking the rap for her and Lucious’s drug running—the profits from which Lucious used to start Empire—and their three sons, Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem. The first season focuses on the dynamic of the Lyon family as Lucious tries to launch an IPO to make Empire Entertainment public and Cookie fights for her fair share, with heavy nods to King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, and Macbeth. Meanwhile, Lucious is informed he only has three years to live after being diagnosed with ALS, and his three sons vie against one another to be his successor. It’s everything you could want in an hour-long escape from critical thinking.
At one point in The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan suggests that Tom acquired his status in the oldest, least classy way—by simply being bigger and stronger than those around him. And Tom is from “old money.” His success in life was pretty much guaranteed at birth. Empire is similar in that it’s executive produced by legendary, Oscar-winning megaproducer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind, Da Vinci Code, Apollo 13, Arrested Development) and Oscar-winning producer-director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler, Monster’s Ball). Writers and directors include luminaries such as Danny Strong, Melvin Van Peebles, Debbie Allen, and Craig Brewer. With as much star power as an awards-show presentation, Empire could’ve cast all unknowns from a community theater group and likely found just as much popularity.
And just as Tom Buchanan is obsessed with racial purity, and reassuring not only himself but everyone around him that he is of quality stock, Empire packs each hour-long episode with a full season’s worth of subplots and suspense, a wide range of often surprising cameos—the season 2 premiere alone featured appearances by Chris Rock, Marisa Tomei, Al Sharpton, Don Lemon, Swizz Beatz, Petey Pablo, Andre Leon Talley, and DeRay Davis—music videos and performances, jump cuts, and scene transitions, as if it’s fighting every single week to stay on the air.
Luke Cage on the other hand is like Nick Carraway in that it’s somewhat hypocritical and a bit of a poser, but well intentioned to the point of being almost heroic in comparison to other characters (or, in this metaphor, programming). Like Nick, the Marvel series has a modest yet still notable background. For Nick, it’s his Yale-alum and semiaffluent status; for Luke Cage it’s the supporting pieces from which it spun off (the brilliant Jessica Jones), and a flat-out, bad-ass teaser trailer. Luke Cage is also fairly Midwestern in tone and character—for a show set in Harlem, the stereotypical East Coast attitude is nowhere to be found. The pacing is a slow, slow, slow burn, and the story never reveals any more than it has to at any given moment. It’s as unnecessarily humble and soft spoken as the nice woman offering you a second helping of her insanely delicious caramel cake during coffee hour, after you all but inhaled the first slice.
The show takes some (much-needed) liberties with the source material. The Luke Cage of the initial comic-book run would be woefully, offensively out of date translated to modern airwaves; the jive talk and caricatures would be too much for even some YouTube commenters. And where it updates those embarrassingly backward tropes, it replaces them with subtle nods without compromising the deeper context behind the characters, settings, and stories.
Also like Nick, however, the Luke Cage series can be a bit hypocritical. In Gatsby, Nick prides himself on reserving judgment of others but spends literally the entire novel . . . judging others. Nick feels himself growing dissatisfied and repulsed by the immorality of Tom and Daisy and Jordan and high society—except that all the while, he’s drawn to Gatsby, perhaps the most immoral and most high-society person in the novel. Similarly, Luke Cage tries to set itself up as outsider in the television world (a position that would fit had it been released five or six years ago), but tropes are still tropes no matter how many (fantastic) Mosley and Ellison references you throw in. And therein lies the rub. Nick Caraway’s biggest fault is that he fallaciously sees himself as one of the East Egg crew and aspires to be just like them. His saving grace is that at the end—spoiler alert for a near-century-old novel that you almost certainly read in school—he realizes that it’s not his scene, and these aren’t his people, and returns home to the Midwest. The 13 episodes of Luke Cage don’t get to that point of realization until eight episodes in, and seemingly in hindsight.
At the risk of coming off way too blunt, the first two episodes of Luke Cage are some of the worst television writing and acting of the past 10 years. Most of the early-episode scenes feel more like a cross between a mid-1970s Blaxploitation film and a late-1990s Master P film (admittedly with far superior production values, but still). Even with awkward dialogue and eye-rolling character portrayals, the tropes still wouldn’t be all that bad—those early episodes could play in the same space as Empire—but Michael Colter’s take on the title role has seemingly mistaken mundane delivery, and surprisingly flat performance, for steely intensity and depth of character.
Colter flat-out lacks the charisma to carry most of his scenes—especially when those scenes are shared with and/or follow the single greatest aspect of the show, Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth. Nobody apparently told Ali that when the writing is silly, he can take it easy. In every second of his screen time, he’s acting as if the critics have his family hostage and the only way to free them is to deliver the strongest performance since Vincent D’Onofrio’s masterful take on Wilson Fisk in Daredevil. A close second to Ali is Alfre Woodard’s nuanced performance as Black Mariah. In fact, nearly every other major character in the show dwarfs Colter’s attempts at powerful acting. Simone Missick, to give another example, is kick-the-coffee-table good as Misty Knight. If the show were told from her perspective, with Luke Cage reeled back to a secondary role, it would be on par with Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
But don’t get me wrong. Just as there are numerous aspects to Luke Cage that miss the mark, there are also more than a few that get it so, so right. The tone of the piece is, like its Netflix Marvel Universe predecessors, unparalleled on television. It is, hands down, a mind-blowingly beautiful show. And where Empire needs to remind you every other minute or two how cool it is, or catch you off-guard with another surprise cameo or crazy plot twist, Luke Cage keeps its focus tight and concise without feeling homogenized (like a certain midi-chlorian-rich family in a galaxy far, far away). You feel the magnitude of the city. You are immersed in the uniquely contemporary pressures of a major metropolitan setting, but you never lose sight of the principle characters. And the soundtrack? Please. The music director for Luke Cage should win a Nobel Prize for music direction. Yes, I know there’s no such thing as a Nobel Prize for music direction. But I’m saying it’s so hip and so perfectly attuned to each scene, that the Nobel committee should create a music-direction award just so they can give it to Luke Cage.
I’d be remiss to discuss either of these shows without touching on their racial significance. Ironically, this is where the two programs swap Great Gatsby characters. Empire becomes Nick, channeling Dead Mike’s solo venture from CB4 (a forgotten but hilariously sharp satirical take on ’90s gangsta-rap culture staring Chris Rock), by proclaiming racial awareness—and, occasionally, awareness of sexual equality and feminism—at every opportunity, trying way too hard to show that it’s on the level. In some cases, it pushes the messages so hard that it becomes unintentionally hilarious, undermining its few tenuous connections to plausibility. Luke Cage, on the other hand, becomes Tom in this regard, wearing unapologetic “Blackness” like a perfectly tailored suit. There are so many natural references to authors and artists of color that if it weren’t for all the superhuman feats, gunfights, and naughty language, it could be mistaken for a grad-school, African American studies course.
So, very much like Nick and Tom in The Great Gatsby, both Luke Cage and Empire are imperfect and at times unpleasant. But they are amazingly executed and powerful in form, necessary in purpose, objectively compelling, and wholly captivating.
Luke Cage season 1 is available to stream on Netflix. Empire airs Wednesdays on Fox, with previous seasons and current episodes (one day after air) available on Hulu.