There are few television characters who can call a rival "Boo Boo Kitty" and make it seem like the most searing insult ever uttered.
But that is the genius of Cookie Lyon, played by Taraji P. Henson, in Fox's insanely popular Empire.
The show, which ends its first buzzworthy season Wednesday night with a two-hour finale, has a strong Philadelphia flavor. Creator Lee Daniels hails from here. The show's star, Terrence Howard, calls the area home. Bryshere Gray, who plays the youngest Lyon, Hakeem, and is the voice behind the show's breakout song, "Drip Drop," is from West Philly. Music director Jim Beanz is based in Bryn Mawr. The fictional Lyon family got its start in Philadelphia.
Still, the show's success is all about the Cookie.
Howard's Lucious Lyon, the Jay Z-King Lear hybrid at the center of Empire, is ostensibly the main character. But Cookie, Lucious' ex-wife and the mother of his three sons, is the show's beating heart.
Cookie is fierce and strong, wild and vulnerable, imbued with emotion when she could be just a thin stereotype of a woman seeking power, all trash and no class. She's unlike anyone on television. Scandal's Olivia Pope may wear the white hat, but Cookie's is leopard print. She gets all the best outfits and all the best lines.
She is both victim and predator. She spent 17 years in prison, having taken the fall for a drug deal so Lucious could start his wildly successful record company, Empire Entertainment. Divorced while in prison, she returns to claim her piece of the action, her piece of Lucious, and her influence over her three grown sons, now jockeying to take command of the company after Lucious finds out he is dying of ALS.
We've always liked to watch rich TV families yell at each other, and Empire's storyline has the added element of celebrity, something the tales of Dallas' Ewings and Dynasty's Carringtons lacked. Yet, in a cast of characters full of the wealthy, talented, and famous, Cookie, the ex-con from Philly, is the one with the most appeal. She's the outsider and disrupter. She's good at what she does and looks fantastic doing it.
Part of the reason she connects with the audience is that she's perfect for the Internet age. She speaks in quotes - "The streets ain't made for everybody, that's why they made sidewalks" - that are ready-made to be tweeted to the community that has grown around the show, with its second screens brightly lighted in real time.
She is made-to-be-meme'd. Every one-liner she drops is akin to free Internet advertising.
Empire's custom hashtag is #TeamCookie or #TeamLucious, but it's harder to justify the latter because Lucious isn't the nicest of guys - he's meant to be one of those conflicted anti-heroes who have become so popular of late. Paired with him, Cookie comes off as the ultimate hero.
She is protective of the sons that she missed out on raising, even when they rebuff her love. She's the only character whose transgressions - and she has more than few - haven't hurt her family. She did put a hit out on a drug dealer she felt was threatening her life, yet the audience roots for her.
Empire's dirty little secret is that it's a powder keg ready to blow at any time. Like most great trash, it constantly teeters between brilliance and stupefying ridiculousness.
Television gold can be completely derailed by one false move (see: Scandal's reliance on the shadowy B6-13 during the supremely mediocre Season 3). It can take many episodes to correct.
Empire has moved so fast in its 12-episode first season that it's easy to forget its inherent messiness, if only because Henson has made Cookie so mesmerizing. She's a prime example of an actor of color with immense talent who has been given only limited opportunity.
It's not as if Henson came out of nowhere. She has been working consistently since the late '90s and has an Oscar nomination under her belt for 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
In 2011, she took on a role in CBS's Person of Interest. Despite being the only female lead, she was generally left out of promotional materials for the show. Henson was not quiet about her dissatisfaction about her treatment, lamenting on her fan Facebook page that she did not appear on the cover of TV Guide while her two white male costars were given star treatment. When her character was killed off in 2013, she told the media that was the plan from the beginning.
That's the thing: Henson has always been here, but now she has been given the chance to force everyone to sit up and take notice. All she has had to do is make herself one of the most memorable characters in current television.
Two-hour season finale at 8 p.m. Wednesday on Fox29.