How Empire Became The Most Important TV Show In Years

Photo: Michael Lavine/FOX.
It's no mistake that the central family on Empire is named Lyon, because the show roared onto screens like a lion in January and has only grown more powerful since. The hip-hop saga, which at its core is a King Lear tale about the head of a music corporation and his need to appoint one of his three sons to replace him after he's gone, has accomplished the improbable feat of increasing in ratings week after week, a complete anomaly in the era of DVR and cord-cutting. Not only are people tuning in to watch live, they're tweeting about the show, listening to the music — which is as integral to the story as any major plot point, and discussing the important social issues Empire is addressing. This is how the Lyon family and their empire became one of television's most important success stories of the past decade.

Familial drama is engrossing
At its core, Empire is a story about a family. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is the tough patriarch with a rags-to-riches, hustler-to-boardroom backstory; Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is the matriarch — but more about her later. They've got three sons: Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray, who also goes by Yazz). Each member of the Lyon family is entertaining on his or her own, but together, they're a powder keg of ambition, talent, drive, insecurity, instability, and competitive verve just waiting to explode. Yes, they also happen to be Black, but that relates to how their stories are told and the characters' experiences and attitudes toward certain social issues. It doesn't pigeonhole the show in any way.
"Humans going through changes in life — you know, love and hate and loss — has no color. For me, that is what I was hoping this show would do," Henson said at the recent Empire Emmy panel.
On a recent call, showrunner Ilene Chaiken elaborated on this idea. "One of the things that works really well on television is stories that connect a great many people with universal themes. It's important for us to tell stories in which the audiences really recognizes themselves and their experiences, and the themes of all of our lives," Chaiken says, "But, that also, at the same time, take the audience into a whole new cultural experience that they could never have touched and didn't know anything about otherwise. It's the thing that makes us all feel so connected, and I think it’s thrilling when it happens on television. I do think that Empire does that. It's a combination of representation for one part of the audience and new experiences for the other."

Empire may be a story about a family in the music industry, but the ways they interact with one another are universal to the human condition.
Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX.

Social issues

The issues that are layered into the Lyons' tale have struck important chords in larger ongoing conversations. Andre, the eldest Lyon cub, has book smarts rather than musical talent. This would make him an asset in most families; however, in the Lyon's den, it makes him more of a liability, since he wants a piece of the empire he cannot contribute to artistically. He also has bipolar disorder, something his retrogressive father cannot accept due to inherent cultural biases and the stigmatization of mental illness in the African-American community.

Lucious has similar trouble accepting the fact that Jamal is gay. "His phobia is portrayed with such bald honesty," Chaiken says. "He believes in it, and it's so honest and true. That portrayal represents the point of view and the attitude of so many men across the spectrum. That's really gripping and interesting and bold, I think."

"Homophobia is rampant in the African-American community, and men are on the DL. They don't come out [and] they're killing our women," series co-creator Lee Daniels said during the Television Critics Association winter preview. Watching the way Lucious reacts to his son's sexuality is heartbreaking, but it reveals an uncomfortable truth with which many men, including Daniels, have dealt. That scene where Lucious finds his young son wearing heels and throws him in a trash can is taken from Daniels' own childhood.

Actor Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal, has also become an important figure for many young viewers. "To children and young people that are questioning their sexuality or know for certain their sexuality, if they can look at someone and see themselves in Jamal, that's incredible. I embrace that fully," he said at the TCAs.
Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX.
After being plagued with questions about his own sexuality, Smollett came out to Ellen DeGeneres in a moving speech about how he has never hidden anything, but prefers not to talk about his personal life just for the sake of privacy. "That's Jussie really knowing how he wants to talk to the world about knowing who he is and who Jamal is, and how he processes that message that he's carrying," Chaiken says.

The creative process
Since Empire airs on network television, there are many things that can't be shown, done, or said. Within those confines, however, the writers, creators, and cast have actually found room to grow and found new ways to express their characters' wants and desires.

"There's a lot of bad words in hip-hop, but we can't use those words in the show," Lee Daniels said during the Empire Emmy panel. "I think that the actors bringing the authenticity to the dialogue…they're doing twists on the dialogue and making tweaks, like 'Boo Boo Kitty.'...As opposed to saying the F-bomb, it's all in the look, and the look can say the 'F-bomb' way stronger than using the F-bomb."

On a recent call with Bryshere Gray, who plays Hakeem on the show, he said the inability to use explicit language makes the music production team stretch even more creatively.

"We can't have vulgar and nasty language in our lyrics, so it's challenging to try to make a hit that's a hit to people right now without cursing," Gray says. "We go harder writing the music."

It doesn't end with the characters. The world of Empire is also outfitted fastidiously and fabulously to create an opulent, lavish viewing experience.

"It's very, very detailed and rigorous. We think of it as a big fashion show," Chaiken says. "Obviously, Cookie's fashion is fabulous. Lucious has a really distinct look, and we take a lot of time and pay a lot of attention to his look. The three sons are really stylish and very, very defined. It's a huge show to costume. It's a world where these characters pay a lot of attention to the details of their lives, from shoes to jewelry to the art that they surround themselves with...they are really stylish."

Viewers tune in knowing that they're going to enter a fully-formed universe with a complete sensory experience.

The music

A show about a hip-hop dynasty would be would be nothing without its songs.

"Lee Daniels knew intuitively [that] the music on the show has to be every bit as good as it purports to be," Chaiken says. "And, he got an artist [Timbaland] to make the music, and it's real."

The music often moves the story forward instead of dialogue, so it's entirely integral to the plot.

Fox has been a pioneer for shows with integrated music. With Empire, the network is continuing the model it began with Glee, where it makes songs from each episode available for download immediately after the show airs. Viewers are responding, but in an entirely new way.

Most of Glee's success was based off of catchy covers of familiar songs. While the cast recordings of popular tunes made it onto Billboard charts, they didn't always have staying power. From a network and sales perspective, Glee's musical impact will mostly be the direct download model it introduced. Empire will be an entirely different success story, as Billboard explained in a recent article.

"Empire's music is off to a slower start chart-wise than Glee's early tunes, and hasn't had any songs infiltrating the top of the charts. But, it's getting closer to making real chart moves — and with original tracks courtesy of executive music producer Timbaland. Instead of saddling its characters with a string of hip-hop covers, the concept of the show calls for absorbing music that helps define its heroes. And, after weeks of buildup and plot development, those songs are finally connecting," the trade publication reported.

As of yesterday, it's officially a slam dunk. The Empire soundtrack debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart, ahead of Madonna's Rebel Heart.

The music is also expanding beyond the show. Jussie Smollett performed "Good Enough" on Ellen, and he teamed up with Bryshere Gray for "No Apologies" on American Idol. Fox is reportedly considering a live tour with Empire's musical stars similar to the extremely successful Glee tours.


The guest stars
Talent attracts talent, and the musical numbers on Empire are drawing in some big-name guest stars. Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Courtney Love, and Naomi Campbell have already appeared on the show. Snoop Dogg will perform his new song, "Peaches N Cream," on the two-hour finale tonight.

His appearance blurs the line between fiction and reality, with Snoop calling Lucious Lyon "the man, the myth, the legend," and Lyon again harkening back to the ongoing IPO storyline and how Empire going public will help artists share in the wealth. It's commentary on what is actually happening in the music industry right now, although the debate is usually less about a record company's IPO and more about artists like Taylor Swift railing against Spotify. Still, who would ever have predicted Snoop Dogg would be an important plot point in a discussion about a company going public, real or fake?

Of course, it all comes back to Cookie. "Who is your favorite character on Empire?" The New York Times asked in an article that ran this weekend. "Is it Jamal, the multitalented gay singer-songwriter? It is Porsha, the constantly put-upon, but ever loyal, assistant? Could it possibly be Hakeem, the immature rapper with the Kid 'n Play-esque flattop? Just kidding — there's only one possible answer, and it is Cookie." Yup, that about sums it up.
In the pilot, Cookie Lyon stalks onto the scene in a flurry of animal print when she emerges from jail after 17 years. Her one-liners are unmistakable and unforgettable. She speaks the hard truths, but they're not devoid of knowledge or import. Vulture even made a "Cookie Lyon Wisdom Generator" — tagline: "You'll learn something."

"Lee [Daniels] wanted to portray a character like Cookie, who is beloved and the heart of the show and yet, he talks about her as Archie Bunker," Ilene Chaiken laughs when asked about our new favorite TV character. "A more benevolent and tolerant Archie Bunker, but who says the same kinds of things most of us wouldn't dare to say. She's so fabulous and fun, but also warm and compassionate all at the same time. So much of it is wish fulfillment. She does things that we wouldn't dare to do, but we might have thought of."

It's gone social
In just the 11 episodes that have aired to date, Empire has bested the reigning TV shows on social media. "Per Nielsen Social Guide's Twitter metrics, Empire now touts an average of 451,270 tweets per episode, besting [The Walking Dead's] average of 444,029," The Wrap reports. Both shows have left the previous record holder, Scandal, in the dust with 354,085 tweets per episode. The cast takes live-tweeting just as seriously as viewers, gathering together to watch episodes.

Fans don't just engage on Twitter, either. Cookie GIFs dominate Tumblr, and specific Empire moments will go down in history (pun intended). Rhonda's bib has a Twitter account, like Pharrell's hat.

"Was that a blow-job bib on Empire last night?" The Cut asked the following day. Yes, yes it was.

"They gave it out as wrap gifts that say, 'Empire Season 1,'" Kaitlin Doubleday, the actress who plays Rhonda, joked about the bib's enduring legacy during the Emmy panel.

The ratings

The cast and creative team knew they had a hit on their hands before the show even aired.

"We kinda expected [it to be a hit] because we worked so hard, and reading the script, it was really strong...It's like nail-biting when we're reading it at the table read, so we were excited for the world to see it," Gray said.

That creative vision and unwavering support doesn't always translate into ratings, but with Empire, it did.

Unlike many shows, where the volume of tweets and social media mentions can give a false impression of the number of people actually tuning in to watch, Empire is a bonafide ratings success story. It's highly uncommon for a show to continue to increase in ratings week after week in the world of DVR and streaming services, but that's exactly what Empire has done. It's also grown in ways creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong didn't expect.

"I thought we would grow in white households," Strong said during a recent media conference call, which was reported on by Target Market News. "What I didn't realize is that we would grow in white households but double in African-American households."

Of the 14.7 million viewers who watched the show on March 4, 64% were Black. The show is clearly resonating with all viewers in a way not even the network or creators could have predicted.

What's next
Obviously, season 2 and what it will entail are pressing questions on everyone's minds. Although Daniels and Strong have revealed two big-name guest-stars — Oprah and Common — not much has been planned beyond that.

"We haven’t started talking about season 2 yet," Chaiken says. There are also no plans or desires to go bigger or too over-the-top.

"We want to stay true to the story. We want to stick to our guns…We want to tell truthful stories that are important [and] are juicy, soap opera, that still have depth. There's no need to switch gears because of what happened. Stay the course," Danny Strong said at the Emmy panel.

After all, when you've got such a compelling family at the heart of the story, there's no need for fancy tricks or plot contrivances. Watching the Lyons argue about who should really take over Empire in Lucious' stead is enough drama for many more seasons. And, don't for one second think that any of them can be ruled out as potential candidates. Chaiken has been careful to present viewers with that information.

"As a writer, I can tell you that one of the conversations I have with the studio and the network as we're developing the stories. They each have to be a contender. You have to show us moments where each of them could take over the empire, and I embraced that concept," Chaiken notes.

Of course, everyone involved has opinions about who should really inherit Lucious Lyon's throne should he succumb to ALS or possibly get murdered by one of the many, many people he's wronged in his megalomaniacal quest to the top.

" be honest, I think Cookie should take over Empire and let Hakeem run it," Gray joked.

See? Empire has everyone talking business.


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