Taraji P. Henson figures she knows at least one good reason why Fox’s “Empire” has become TV’s biggest breakout hit of 2015.
Henson, who co-stars in the Wednesday night drama as the unfiltered, outspoken and altogether unforgettable Cookie Lyon, suggests it’s the same reason the 2014-2015 season’s other biggest drama hit is ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” and the season’s highest-buzz new sitcom is ABC’s “black-ish.”
All three feature lead characters of color.
Henson isn’t saying that’s why the shows work. She’s just saying there are practical rewards for prime-time television in looking a little more like the people who WATCH it.
“I think people are seeing that shows with people of color can make money,” Henson says. “They can do well. They can be successful. And when things MAKE MONEY, then people are interested. So that’s what I think you’re seeing. With the wave of successful ethnic shows that are on television right now, people want to be a part of it.”
“Empire” was conceived as a classic old-school prime-time family soap opera, set in the music business. Terrence Howard stars stars as Lucious Lyon, a one-time recording star who founded Empire Records and has built it into a powerhouse. Any relation to real-life music business moguls who fit that general description is, of COURSE, entirely coincidental.
Cookie is Lucious’ ex-wife. She was there during his CAREER and for the launch of Empire. Then she took an unplanned 17-year vacation in an orange jumpsuit, doing the time for the drug-running that financed Empire in the first place.
Now she’s back and she figures she’s got a great big CHECK waiting for her, which turns out to be only partly true.
Mostly at first it’s a reality CHECK.
While she forces her way BACK into Empire, she has to claw for respect andpower. Fortunately for Cookie, clawing is something she’s really good at.
Lucious has some dramas of his own. At the BEGINNING of the show, which was also the moment he was going to cash in on Empire’s success with a splashy IPO, he was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and given three years to live.
So that ramped up the urgency and forced Lucious to START figuring out which of his three sons he wants to take over the company.
Andre (Trai Byers), the oldest, has channeled his whole life toward that shot. He’s a graduate of the Wharton SCHOOL, he’s serious and smart.
But he has no musical talent, which bothers Lucious, and he has an ultra-ambitious white wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), which also bothers Lucious, not to mention adding to the pressure all around. Oh, and Andre is secretly bipolar.
Son number two, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), is talented and committed. He’s also gay, which Lucious finds repulsive. Much of this season Jamal struggled with whether to come out, with Lucious warning it would wreck his CAREER.
The youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is already a star. He’s Lucious’ favorite. He’s also self-absorbed, though he’s close to Jamal and they often perform together.
Other characters are equally striking, including Lucious’ glamorous fiancé Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey). She and Cookie engage in a delicious running catfight.
So “Empire” has everything that prime-time soap fans have loved in shows from “Dallas” up through “Scandal.”
There’s money, power, betrayal, sex, murder, deception, and, as an added BONUS, some pretty good music.
Lee Daniels, whose previous productions include “Monster’s Ball,” “Precious” and “The Butler,” co-created “Empire” with his “Butler” writing partner Danny Strong.
This is Daniels’ first TV production and he says he envisioned a BALANCEbetween characters who ring true to life and situations that may be inflated for dramatic impact.
“It’s mixed with happiness and sadness,” Daniels says. “As with ‘Precious,’ as with ‘The Butler’ and my other films, there’s a fine balance. Are we laughing at this, or are we crying at this? It’s life with a little bit of camp so we can laugh.”
Cookie’s wardrobe, which might be considered one good indicator of the show’s tone, sometimes looks like Cookie raided Patti LaBelle’s stage costume closet.
Henson says she loves it.
“I grew up on ‘Dynasty,’” she says, echoing a similar unapologetic confession from Daniels. “I miss the fluffy slippers, the feather slippers, and the long silk gowns cascading down the stairs. The big hair, the catfights. Don’t you miss that? Stabbing each other in the BACK.”
Strong notes that there’s really nothing new in the core dynamics of “Empire.”
“It’s based on ‘King Lear’ and ‘The Lion in Winter’ in very fundamental conceptual ways,” he says. “But it’s not as if we were trying to do a modern remake of either one of those. It was taking mythical archetypes and trying to turn it into a modern-day soap opera.”
The twist, he and Daniels say, was giving Lucious some additional qualities that aren’t entirely commendable, like being a murderer and a homophobe.
“In television today, the antiheroes are some of the most popular characters,” says Strong. “Tony Soprano, House, ‘Breaking Bad.’
“For our mogul, we wanted someone who was running this family in an iron-fisted sort of way. And to infuse it with attacking homophobia in such a mainstream genre, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really exciting.’ So it’s not just a really sexy, fun, juicy soap, it’s dealing with social issues.”
The coup, he says, was finding Howard, an actor who could pull those disparate goals together.
“He had to be incredibly charming and charismatic and likable,” says Strong, meaning viewers wouldn’t hate him or consider him a villain, but could sympathize with his human side.
Daniels says homophobia was never an add-on to the Lucious character, but one of the show’s central premises from the BEGINNING.
“Homophobia is rampant in the African American community, and men are on the DL,” says Daniels. “They don’t come out because the priest says, YOURpastor says, your mama says, your next door neighbor says, your homie says, your brother says, your boss says. And they are killing African American women. They’re killing our women. And so I wanted to blow the lid off homophobia in my community.”
That’s an unusual mission statement for any prime-time TV drama, but blended into all the other elements of “Empire,” it seems to be working.
For the first seven weeks of its first 12-week season, viewership grew every week, both total audience and advertiser-coveted 18- to 49-year-olds.
In its first week, the live audience was 9.9 million. By week seven, it was 13.9 million, with another four million-plus WATCHING on tape later in the week.
That makes “Empire” the first show in 10 years, since Fox’s “House,” to grow in each of its first seven weeks.
It’s also scoring on social media. The Feb. 25 EPISODES generated 715,000 tweets, more than any other show on TV that week.
Not bad for a creator and star who not so long ago figured that by NOW they’d be off somewhere singing “What’s Going On.”
“I didn’t think Terrence was interested in TV,” says Daniels. “After ‘The Butler,’ we were looking at other films. I was thinking about Marvin Gaye.”
“We had had such a great time doing ‘The Butler’ that I was glued to Lee’s hip,” says Howard. “I was like, ‘Anywhere you go, I’m going.’”
So far, that’s been to the top.