Empire: behind TV's biggest drama in a decade

The “black Dynasty” has finally crossed the Atlantic to E4 with its slick, ratings-smashing mix of hip-hop and high drama. Is it a new dawn for African-American-led television?

Empire’s impact on US TV is about more than just numbers, but get a load of these: episode one, 7 January this year on Fox, 9.9 million viewers. The finale, 10 weeks later: 17.6 million. It’s the biggest drama debut in a decade, posting ratings not seen since Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. If it’s a 10th as hot here, E4 just pulled off the acquisition of the year.

A sort of hip-hop soap, Empire is a first TV project for Lee Daniels, who broke through in 2009 with Precious, a flamboyantly grim film about incest, abuse and poverty in 1980s Harlem. Empire’s action starts when street criminal-turned-hip-hop superstar-turned-smooth, cravat-swathed record company mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) announces that he intends to bequeath his CEO position to one of his three sons: business-brained, bipolar Andre; unassuming, gay musical genius Jamal; or bad-boy rap starlet Hakeem. He must now choose which son inherits.

On the very same day, though, Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie swaggers out of jail after 17 years and immediately demands her share of the business, which Lucious started with the drug money she went down for earning. He says no, sparking an epic love/hate struggle for control of the company and the children’s loyalty. Glossy, bombastic and suicidally fast-paced, Empire is, in Daniels’s own description, a “black Dynasty”. People are having sex one episode and launching billion-dollar hostile takeovers against each other the next.

They’re also bursting into song. Empire continues a musical-drama revival that had looked to be stalling thanks to the natural end of Glee and the messy self-immolation of Smash. This is more in the style of Nashville, with original songs overseen by Timbaland and performed by characters in the course of their professional lives, rather than in place of dialogue. Guest stars as themselves include Gladys Knight, Snoop Dogg, Rita Ora and Patti LaBelle.

Sex, money, power and music are a powerfully addictive combination. “It’s the white story, the black story, the Indian story, the English story, the Chinese story,” says Daniels. “It’s King Lear! It’s the American dream. It’s a family trying to succeed. When [co-creator] Danny Strong approached me with the idea, we both had King Lear in mind.”

All that doesn’t fully explain why Empire has become so huge. Daniels is speaking to the European press (“The Guardian’s rough. It’s rough, baby! It’s like the [New York] Times on steroids. Careful!” ) alongside Taraji P Henson, who has grabbed the role of Cookie and made her the most quoted character on American telly. Redolent as much of Glee’s Sue Sylvester as Dynasty’s Alexis Colby, Cookie crackles with nothing-to-lose daring and breathtaking put-downs. She would die, or more likely kill, for her kids. She gladly makes fools suffer. Her earrings are bigger than most people’s faces.

When Cookie’s not on screen, you’re marking time waiting for her to return, a problem the show gets round by having her burst into other characters’ scenes. The classic Empire set-up is a board meeting at which Lucious tells people to do something, only for the door to crash open and there’s Cookie, hip cocked, telling them to do the opposite, flame-throwing quippy threats if they demur. In episode one, she hands Hakeem an old-school cartoon beating with a mop handle, just for giving her lip.

Henson was Oscar-nominated for The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button in 2009 but, before Empire, was not a marquee name. Having left CBS crime drama Person Of Interest in 2013, she went back to theatre, disillusioned. Her “but then I got this script…” story is more passionate than most. “It scared me. I was breaking out in a sweat. This Cookie, people could like or hate her. But fear to me just means a challenge and I should do it. Once I’d dealt with the fear, I thought: ‘This could change the game for network television.’ There were two other times in my career where I knew I had something special in my hands: [hit 2005 hip-hop movie] Hustle & Flow and Benjamin Button. Empire was the same rush, the same fear.”

Eager diva: Taraji P Henson, who plays Cookie.
Eager diva: Taraji P Henson, who plays Cookie. Photograph: Twentieth Century Fox/PR

When Henson insisted that she could only have on-screen chemistry with Howard (pictured right), her Hustle & Flow co-star and, she says, lifelong showbiz soulmate, Daniels had his leads. “I didn’t want to do TV,” he says. “I didn’t want to do film! I come from off-off-off-Broadway. I’m content being poor. I knew [TV] meant a lot of people all over your shit. God really protected me because I got an incredible cast who had my back. It doesn’t matter how many people are trying to put their shit on it, the cast know what time it is.”

“If something’s not Cookie, I’m not saying it,” says Henson, backing up Daniels’s point. “I know this woman. Writers live with all the characters. Guess who I live with every day, all day? Cookie.” Henson’s Twitter following has swelled to 3.3 million, and she has so many fans she’s coined a name for them. “I had to do something that incorporated men. Men would be like, I ain’t no ‘Sweet Cookie’. A lot of straight men who could be tuning in to sports channels watch this show. So I came up with Cookie Monsters. They’re calling themselves Cookie Monsters.”

Empire is frothy but earnest, sexy but chaste, absurd but not quite ridiculous. It’s also a drama about a hip-hop label run by former drug dealers that, because it’s on Fox rather than HBO, does not feature swearing or nudity. “That’s when you hire incredible, incredible actors who are able to give you the nuance,” says Daniels, looking at Henson. “They can say ‘Fuck you in your ass’ just with a beat of an eyelash.”

Lee Daniels enjoys commercial but not always critical success because he paints in broad strokes. This rule applies to Empire, where any hunt for an artful subtext will likely prove unsuccessful. Yet the show is a trash-TV Trojan horse. Its very existence is revolutionary. Big US TV shows were already becoming more diverse, with Orange Is The New Black’s female-dominated cast hitting every sexual, economic and ethnic base, and Scandal/How To Get Away With Murder showrunner Shonda Rhimes proving that black actresses can lead mainstream hits. Empire feels like the next step from the future: the No 1 drama has an all-black main cast.

Cravbat's entertainment: Terrence Howard, who stars as Lucious Lyon.
Cravbat’s entertainment: Terrence Howard, who stars as Lucious Lyon. Photograph: Twentieth Century Fox/PR

The Empire finale was seen by 71% of US African-American women under 50 who were watching TV at that time; more black American men the same age watched it than saw the Super Bowl. Although the numbers are too big for Empire’s audience to be entirely African-American, Daniels has an extraordinary platform. Having sucked in millions with soapy shenanigans, he’s hit them with serious issues not spoken about in other dramas.

Most notably, he’s used it to confront homophobia among black Americans: Lucious’s open disdain for his son Jamal is a major plot thread. Episode one’s most talked-about scene is, in the middle of a razzle-dazzle melodrama, genuinely startling. We flash back to Jamal as a small boy, walking into a Christmas family party in his mother’s headscarf and high heels. Lucious rises in a blind rage, roughly carries his son outside and stuffs him in a trash can.

This is an incident from Daniels’s own life: he was the kid in the trash can. “That totally happened. Everything. With the exception that there was also blood involved: a bad beating, of another cousin.” He leans slowly forward. “His father was drunk. He was a Vietnam vet, he had gone crazy. The same Christmas Eve, my birthday. I was five, he was three. This cute little boy wouldn’t eat his rice. He was in a high chair. And his father beat him with an extension cord. I remember the blood in the rice.”

Henson is staring at Daniels in shock. “Ohhh..!”

“The blood. In the rice. Simultaneously as my shit’s going down, [and I’m] being put in the trash can. And his mother so afraid in the corner, praying, singing this beautiful hymn… I want to save that for next season.”

He suddenly smiles: “SHIT IS REAL, AIGHT?”

Empire building: series co-creator Lee Daniels.
Series co-creator Lee Daniels Photograph: Andrew Toth

Even if it’s wrapped up in glitzy gift paper, north of 17 million people tuning in for this stuff feels like a miracle. Yet, surprisingly for a man whose last movie had the full title Lee Daniels’s The Butler, Daniels talks modestly about Empire’s significance. “There was a period of time when [African-Americans] were on TV in a big way,” he shrugs. “What’s Happening!!, The Cosby Show, In Living Color. I don’t look at an absence as racism, I look at it as what TV feels they can make money on. Black simply wasn’t making no money. But now, hey, we here!”

With season two commissioned and on the way, mooted guests include Oprah Winfrey (“I’m wearing her down!” says Daniels) and even Barack Obama. Daniels says he has floated the idea of the president playing not himself, but an ageing former member of a Color Me Badd-style boyband. Obama is already an unseen, unheard character on Empire: Lucious regularly talks to him on the phone. In episode two, a pissed-off Potus hangs up on him.

Empire is showing here on E4, which means it stands half a chance of attracting a decent-sized audience, but Daniels isn’t fazed about whether it can replicate its success on this side of the Atlantic.

“I don’t have any expectations of any of my work. We do it with love, bubblegum and popsicle sticks,” he says. “We all come in together, and roll up our sleeves. We have fights, we laugh, we drink and we eat, and then we work. It’s not all positive. There’s a bunch of racists out there. We got a long way to go. But I’m OK. I’m ready.”

He turns again to Henson: “You ready for the fight?”

“We in it. No running away from it.”

“Take your earrings off, honey. Let’s fight.”

Empire starts 28 April, 9pm, E4

Jack Seale

The GuardianTramp

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