It seems like a violation of Chekhov’s gun rule to put Naomi Campbell in the first act and not have her throw a phone at someone in the third. (She tore up a check instead.) But other than that, the first season of “Empire,” which ended on Fox on Wednesday, was pretty perfect.
It’s not that this series was particularly unpredictable — this is after all a nighttime soap. And as such, even the craziest plot twists feel appropriate. In the sizzling two-hour denouement, for example, the music titan Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) discovered that he didn’t have a terminal illness after all (Dun-dun-DUN). An enemy was almost thrown off a balcony and an ally was killed, but the patriarch won’t die anytime soon, and neither will the sibling rivalry he has been stoking since the show premiered in January.
Yet despite all that, a hostile takeover attempt, and Lucious’s getting sent to jail in the final moments, the soapiest moment was both a throwback and a nod to present-day. The drink-tossing, hair-pulling, stomach-punching smackdown between Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and her prissy nemesis Anika (Grace Gealey) served as homage to the classic “Dynasty” catfights between Alexis Carrington and Krystle (this one ended on top of a pool table instead of in a lily pond) as well as a mirror of similar moments on reality shows like “Bad Girls Club” and “Love & Hip Hop.”
From the start, “Empire,” created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong (“The Butler”), was a double-edged variation on a familiar genre, mixing not just hip-hop music and R&B, but also adding a contemporary sensibility to Aaron Spelling-era melodrama. That’s what makes it fun. What makes it surprising, though, are the glimmers of wit and self-awareness beneath all the rap star swagger and over-the-top confrontations. Even the fervid finale had a few off-the-wall side jokes. Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) looks up from an intense meeting about the Empire Records succession plan to address his father’s assistant. “What type of black girl named Becky?” Hakeem asks. Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) replies, “My mom’s white.”
At points over its 12-episode first season, this series about a Philadelphia drug dealer turned music business magnate was strikingly sweet. More than most dramas, “Empire” found space for the natural fluidity of family bonds. One second brothers are at each other’s throats (literally) and in the next, one says something that makes the other laugh. Potboiler television shows never stint on enmity and passion, but they don’t always make room for a glint of ordinary affection.
Even the two-hour finale found room for a disarming moment — Lucious and Jamal (Jussie Smollett), his gay son, are still estranged but working on a song together. The tension between them is real. They throw verses at each other until Lucious invents a goofy lyric and they both crack up. (That they both laugh on the line “whoop that trick,” a jokey reference to Mr. Howard’s role in the film “Hustle and Flow,” is doubly delightful.)
Lucious coaxed, bribed, lied, flattered and killed his way to the top, but the show really revolved around Ms. Henson’s Cookie. Sashaying through the Empire offices in PETA-provoking minks, leopard print sheaths, high heels and fake nails, she milked every head toss and line written for Twitter and promo reels. (“If you want Cookie’s nookie, ditch the bitch.”)
But thanks to Ms. Henson, there was more to Cookie than just diva panache and ex-wife attitude. Her most eloquent monologues were wordless. When Cookie, freshly released from prison, first enters her ex-husband’s opulent marble and crystal palace, her face shows brazen defiance and also childlike awe, with a top note of sorrow as she takes in everything she missed.
The series reveled in extravagance, yet there was economy to the writing — and the music. When Jamal cuts himself off from his homophobic father and goes to live in a Brooklyn dump, he kicks trash cans in the alley of his derelict neighborhood and finds a beat and inspiration — “You can keep your money.” The song is a three-fer: an anthem for Jamal, a plot device and, for the show’s producers, an added income stream via iTunes.
Hip-hop, rap and R&B tunes are artfully woven into the soundtrack to punch up a moment or propel the narrative, but so are older musical gimmicks including those hokey dramatic cues that on shows like “General Hospital” underscore a shocking revelation — or what Fox promos call an “OMG moment.”
Even some names have an old-school meaning. Lucious lied to Hakeem about his cougar girlfriend Camilla (Ms. Campbell), telling his son that he paid Camilla to leave Hakeem alone and she accepted. Sure enough, like her namesake Camille, the lovelorn Dumas heroine who inspired “La Traviata,” Camilla nobly refuses to take money from her lover’s father and instead leaves — in this case with tears rolling down her cheek in the back of a limousine.
And, of course, Lucious got the last word, setting up next season with a taunting warning as dire as any by J.R. Ewing. “The day will come when Lucious Lyon will return,” he says, clutching the bars of his cell. “Game time, bitches.”
More than anything else, “Empire” is a forward-thinking throwback.