To say that Empire has been a polarizing small screen monster would be an understatement. Since its January 7th premiere, the over-the-top music drama has been labeled both as an unmitigated rachet-fest that traffics in black stereotypes and well-worn tropes to a did-you-see-what-happened?!!! television triumph that brazenly channels the best of '80s prime time soap operas. Often times these two passionate factions have gone at each other's necks with no shortage of think-pieces lambasting or taking up for the breakout series.
But Empire, led by the script-chewing acting duo of Terrence Howard (Lucious Lyon) and Taraji P. Henson (Cookie) truly works because there are no just-add-water characters here. That's largely in thanks to the show's outspoken producer Lee Daniels. EnStars breaks down why the most talked about show of the season is making black history, one controversial (and game changing) moment at a time.
Producer Lee Daniels Is Introducing Complex (And Entertaining) Characters
Within the Lyon clan there are no white hats. Lucious, Empire's driven head, is a former drug dealer turned respectable music titan who is obsessed with family loyalty, but once dumped his son Jamal into a garbage can after his young boy stepped out in front of company wearing his mother's high heels. Oh yeah, he also squezed the trigger on a childhood friend that threatened his company's potential IPO. Lucious' ex-wife Cookie is a fierce, two-fisted, quote-worthy lioness that loves her gay son and gifted songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett ) unconditionally. But even as the show's moral compass, the ex-con Cookie is not above putting a hit out on a would-be threat.
Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is an epically spoiled rotten rap-superstar in the making who habitually disrespects his mother while the oldest Andre (Trai Byers)--the college educated, conservative suit-and-tie heir to the Empire throne (at least in his mind)--struggles with bipolar disorder and nearly gets Jamal killed during an attempt to pour gasoline on his brothers' toxic rivalry. By making the primary characters such flawed creatures Daniels and his collective are not beholden to usual plot devices. Empire can go left when we are all thinking right.
'Empire' Keeps Breaking New Ratings Ground
It has been a inconceivable run for Empire. For an astounding six straight weeks, the little-show-that-could has seen its ratings increase each episode. Wednesday's episode drew in 12.9 million viewers with a mammoth 5.1 rating among adults 18-49. Those are gaudy numbers that would make any network suit and advertising executive jump on a plane to Boston and do snow angels totally naked in the hardest hit blizzard dumped city in the U.S. A few weeks ago, Empire broke the record for posting the most consecutive ratings jumps than any other freshman show in 23 years. And it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Quite scary.
Timbaland And His Team Are Winning
When news first broke that super producer Timbaland and crew would be taking the lead on the soundtrack for Empire the announcement was met by polite, golf clap-like applause. Yes, the Grammy-winning music visionary has logged studio time with everyone from late R&B princess Aaliyah and genre-flipping hip-hop muse Missy Elliott to larger-than-life rap mogul Jay-Z and blue-eyed soul superstar Justin Timberlake. But with music sales on a nose dive and pop-fueled singles becoming the anchor for an industry struggling to find new revenue streams, it was hard to envision the music on Empire transcending the confines of television.
Which makes the show's impressive, radio-ready anthems the series' not so secret weapon. The world-beating music label premise of Empire is believable because Timbaland, musical director Jim Beanz (who plays wild child rapper Titan on the show) and respected studio vet Raphael Saadiq are taking these tracks very seriously. Cuts like "No Apologies," performed by Smollett and Gray, are better than a lot of the music that passes for R&B these days. And the newly released "Money For Nothing" flips the classic 1985 Dire Straits MTV staple of the same name into a funked-up, chest-beating guilty pleasure. Somehow it all works.
Because Cookie Is TV's Most Must See Character
Every drama-filled extravaganza needs a water cooler, headline-grabbing star. And the wonderful Taraji P. Henson, who plays the tough-talking, no-filter artist manager Cookie, effortlessly fits the bill. Much like Joan Collins' Alexis Colby (Dynasty) and Larry Hagman's J.R. Ewing (Dallas) and more recently Joe Morton's Rowan Pope (Scandal), Cookie is a scene stealing, catch phrase throwing, buzz-igniting behemoth. For the Oscar-nominated Henson, the role has been a boundless joyride. When Cookie dismisses her ex husband Lucious' soon-to-be wife and rival Anika as Boo Boo Kitty (played with wicked glee by Grace Gealey) we all squeal in delight. When Cookie shows up to an Empire meeting dressed in nothing but a long coat and sexy lingerie and proudly slaps her magnificent bottom she sets social media on fire. More Cookie please.
Black Hollywood Has Never Been More Omnipresent
At times it seems like all of Black Hollywood is putting in work on Empire. In addition to the show's cast, there have been guest spots by the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr., Tasha Smith, Dereck Luke, Naomi Campbell, and a shocking appearance by Cosby Show and That's So Raven veteran Raven-Symone, who had the Internet going crazy as Jamal's ex-wife and baby mama (surprise!!!) Olivia. And there are more to come: Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle are just some of the names that will be appearing on future episodes of Empire. This can only be a positive considering that a lack of diversity in Hollywood has long been a troubling issue (the recent Oscar nominations tell the tale) for years.
More Ethnic Shows Will Come
Call it the Shonda Rhimes effect. The seemingly unstoppable force behind Grey's Anatomy and Scandal has built her TGIT (Thank God It's Thursday!) empire on good ol' fashioned, riveting storytelling. Indeed, the ratings (and cultural) triumph of Rhimes' latter sensation and Kerry Washington vehicle has opened the door for other African-American-headlined shows to get the green light. But Empire has done something even more impressive: it's proven that an nearly all-black television cast can go beyond the demographics and pull in millions of viewers.
The impact has been buzz-heavy. Already in the pipeline is NBC's Love Is Four Letter Word (a show that explores the dynamics of racism whose central couple was changed from white to black), written by Asian American playwright Diana Son. And Silvio Horta's The Curse Of The Fuentes Women, about three generations of Latino women, is on deck as well as Telenovela, a 13-episode comedy starring Eva Longoria. Things are happening, people.