Everything you need to know about Empire

Here's our handy primer for you

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Let’s get this out of the way right now: Empire, the massive hit show from America, is not profound, pivotal television of the Breaking Bad, The Wire and Orange is the New Black variety.  This is a different kind of game-changer, sort of like when you downloaded Tinder for the first time and decided that it’s not the most productive way to spend your time, but hell you can’t live without it.  The show, which centres around a P. Diddy-like music mogul’s family as they take his record label public, is junk food for the mind — but the most addictive, fascinating, social media-breaking kind! (Seriously, its ratings and Twitter engagement consistently set new records during the course of its premiere season across the pond.)

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Get into it, and get your life. Here’s a crib sheet to key characters and words you’ll need to know. 

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1) It’s ratchet*

I like to put that out there first, because many of my friends here in the UK who watched episode one after hearing my glowing recommendation were surprised by the level of drama and camp. This is King Lear draped in bling and gold chains; Dynasty hopped up on Ciroc Vodka. New York Magazine’s Vulture called it an 'amusing tacky hot mess,' which is also pretty accurate. That said, don’t be surprised by the loud, jaw-dropping shenanigans that unfold over the coming weeks. 'Mad Men' this is not. You’ll find no restraint here. 

2) Everything revolves around Cookie

Chances are, you may be thinking of 'Empire' as the new series from America starring Naomi Campbell.  You’d be wrong. Campbell may be the most famous of the cast, but this is all about Cookie, that is, the lead character played by Oscar nominated actress Taraji P. Henson. As the wife of Terrence Howard’s mogul, Lucious Lyon, Henson is easily the best thing about the show**, skillfully preventing 'Empire' from becoming the bad hip hop melodrama it would otherwise be. My friend Malcolm calls her 'Alexis Carrington in a lacefront weave'. That’s mostly because she’s got the drama down. I’d also say she’s the sassy, ex-con version of Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey. That’s because after one season in America, Cookie’s quotable one-liners are now the stuff of Tumblr legend.

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3) And Cookie’s wardrobe is everything

When adorable Jussie Smollett’s Frank Ocean-like characer Jamal asks his mom Cookie, 'What you got on?' after she gets out of prison, that’s foreshadowing. Because Cookie’s wardrobe is a character all its own. It was also the unlikeliest of references during the a/w 2015 show season. The outlandishly large fur and faux coats that appeared on the catwalks had Cookie Lyons name written all over them, and editors (at least the American ones) noticed — name-checking her in their catwalk posts on Instagram and referencing her in runway reviews.  

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4) The music is secondary

Manage your expectations about the soundtrack now. 'Empire' may be about music, but you will not be tuning in for it. Despite cameos from Courtney Love, Mary J. Blige, Estelle and Rita Ora, the soundtrack is a snooze. There are no chart-topping songs a la Glee coming from this show, yet.

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5) And three words: Boo Boo Kitty

Cookie’s shade*** has been quoted so much, I'm giving the topic its own item on this list. Google Boo Boo Kitty to see what I mean. She is a masterful critic, dishing out an impressive mix of subtle and blatant insults from the arch of an eyebrow to a full-on holler in the street. Here are some of the best, which await you this season: 

*Rachet /ratʃɪt/  -This word has been around for decades in America but is still fairly new in the UK. It has umpteen meanings. But for our purposes, I’ll go with the non-gender specific adjective, which boils down to being anyone who is wild, irreverent, or as one radio DJ accurately put it, ‘annoying as hell.’

**Cookie's assistant, Porsha, or as I like to call her, 'Get My Shoe,' is the second best thing about 'Empire'. Her comedic timing gets better and better with each episode. 

***Shade – This term is a mainstay on Twitter, but it has yet to really land on this side of the Atlantic. In short, it's the highest form of trash-talking. The more layers to unpack the better. The drag queen Dorian Corey introduced it to the world in the documentary 'Paris is Burning' and her definition is still best: 'Shade is, ‘I don't tell you you're ugly, but I don't have to tell you because you know you're ugly.' And that's shade.' A little mean, yes. But Cookie didn't get to the top of hip hop being nice!

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