It’s only March, but 2015 has already produced its first television hit with FOX’s hip-hop musical nighttime soap, Empire. With only a 12-episode run, the Lee Daniels-created series has done the near impossible: increasing viewership weekly — and sometimes by more than 20%. In the age of binge-watching, with more creative cable shows stealing viewers, many big networks are fighting for extended viewership, but Empire has proven it can be done and done well.
Empire is another entry in America’s renewed interest in the musical, which began in the early 2000s with big screen hits Moulin Rouge and Chicago and has continued in both film and television over the last 15 years, including popular shows like Glee and Smash. But where both of those shows failed, Empire excels. Sure, Glee was a massive hit for a span of time — but even in its glory days, it often struggled with the storylines that came between the pop numbers, and some episodes felt more like a music video than a TV show. Other weeks, it easily fell into cheesy after-school special territory. Smash had similar struggles — while the original songs written for the show were great Broadway fun, the characters often felt flimsy and the storylines meandering.
This is where Empire has thrived. You don’t watch for just the songs. You watch for the drama, the characters, and the camp. The original songs — produced by Timbaland — are an added and welcomed bonus, fitting seamlessly into the show — which wasn’t always the case on both Glee and Smash. The characters don’t just randomly burst into song, but when the songs come, they often add depth to the storylines.
Empire is a loose retelling of King Lear, and the show tipped its hat to other Shakespeare classics a few times — including titling one episode “Out, Damned Spot.” Terrence Howard leads an impressive cast as Lucious Lyon, the head of a hip-hop label who is facing his own demise after receiving a ALS diagnosis in episode one. The series’ driving narrative is that Lyon must choose one of his three sons to take over his empire.
His sons, however, are each facing their own challenges and each have a complicated relationship with their father. The oldest, Andre (Trai Byers), is bi-polar, not musically talented, and married to a white woman (something his father doesn’t approve of). Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is gay, but perhaps the most musically talented — or, at least, the most like his father (though his father is homophobic). The youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), is a talented, yet immature, rapper, who has a thing for an older woman (played by Naomi Campbell).
If that doesn’t sound like enough drama, it gets even better. Their mother, Cookie (played by the amazing Taraji P. Henson), re-enters their lives after spending 17 years in prison for drug charges — proving their empire was built on drug money. She now wants a piece of the action and a relationship with her sons and possibly one with her former husband, who is dating a new woman named Anika (Grace Gealey).
The first season is filled with plenty of OMG moments and quick one-liners perfectly made for Internet memes the next morning (most involving Cookie’s digs at Anika). The show is often a throwback to other nighttime soaps like Dynasty. But in lesser hands, that style could have easily crumbled to pieces. The writing, storylines, music, and acting bring this show to a different level.
Henson brings a real soul to Cookie. Yes, she’s over the top, often in animal print, and normally storming into rooms, but you also feel for her. She made a huge sacrifice for her family and now wants to be a part of it again.
Howard plays the aging music giant with just the right amount of ego, brass, and heart. He’s made huge mistakes and has done terrible things (including murdering a good family friend in the first episode), but he’s also very vulnerable — like when he truly thinks he and Cookie can live happily ever after. He represents a man who has fought hard and played dirty, but has gotten to the top only to see things aren’t at all what he expected. Are any of his sons worthy of the empire? Is Lucious really a god or just a bad man? The show doesn’t give easy answers.
In fact, Empire does a great job of creating balanced characters. Your alliance shifts from episode to episode as you discover no one in this empire is perfect. And who would want them to be?
While the series plays up the camp and fun, it also tackles serious issues. One of the most talked-about storylines of the season has been Jamal’s coming out and dealing with his father’s homophobia. In fact, this storyline really came front and center as the show wrapped up its first season.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem that new. Most gay characters are stuck with storylines involving straight people’s homophobia. But in this case, there is a freshness. This is partly because homophobia within the black community and within the hip-hop world is rarely talked about, especially on primetime network television. Sure, a homophobic father feels a little cliché, but that’s not where the storyline stops. Jamal is strong, talented, and confronts his father consistently through the show. It was also refreshing to see that while Lucious takes issue with Jamal’s sexual orientation, Jamal’s brothers don’t. There’s a great scene in episode eight (“The Lyon’s Roar”) where Hakeem comes to tell Jamal how proud he is that he publically came out at the company’s White Party. This does feel groundbreaking even if it shouldn’t. It is 2015, after all.
The two-hour finale, which aired last week, delivered in nearly every way possible. There was endless plotting, backstabbing, the Cookie and Anika fight we’ve all being waiting for, a murder attempt, a death, a changed diagnosis, and an arrest. But even amongst all the drama, there was an emotional punch as nearly all the characters had a make a hard choice of how they were going to move forward and who they were going to trust. Jamal and Lucious’s final scene felt honest and well earned.
In just 12 weeks, Empire has proven to be a powerful force — further proof of the need for diversity in Hollywood. Television has finally gotten the message that people will watch great television starring a wide variety of people. Empire boasts a nearly all-black cast and has featured a predominantly gay storyline, yet it’s the biggest hit of the year so far. Now if only the film industry would get the same message.
Thankfully, FOX has already renewed the show for a second season, and the first left plenty more to explore. Lucious is behind bars. Jamal is running the company, but the rest of his family is plotting a hostel takeover. Here’s hoping season two packs just the same punch — and gives us even more amazing Cookie moments.