America’s biggest new TV show is a gaudy family saga described as a “blackDynasty” by its creator, featuring music by uber-producer Timbaland and counting Michelle Obama among its numerous celebrity fans.
In the five weeks since its premiere on Fox, Empire – essentially a mashup between The Lion in Winter and The Godfather and set in the world of hip-hop music – has pulled in 11.5 million viewers and dominated watercooler chat. The internet is awash with memes from the show, while episodes are gleefully discussed on Twitter by viewers whose jaws appear to be in a state of permanent dislocation from the gloriously ripe dialogue.
Its creator, Lee Daniels, the director of films as diverse as Precious and The Paperboy, wouldn’t have it any other way. “[I wanted audiences] to sit there and go ‘No, this bitch didn’t! Oh my fucking God!’” he admitted in the Hollywood Reporter. Yet while Empire relishes its crazier moments, whiplash plot twists and Naomi Campbell appearances, it’s also tackling issues from homophobia to abuse with the sort of uncomfortable honesty rarely seen on network TV.
“The way in which the show balances a sense of authenticity with some of the more audacious moments is key to its success,” says Ilene Chaiken, Empire’s executive producer. “Lee has really embraced the idea of it being a black Dynastybut from the beginning I’ve said to him you’re being too modest – this show is so much more than that. There’s an honesty to the story we’re telling and audiences have responded to that.”
Empire has increased its ratings in each of its five weeks on air, the first show to have done so in 20 years, and a Nielsen report suggested that it was watched in 33% of black households. Now critics are wondering if it heralds a new era for television programming. A report in New York Magazine stated that “among African-American women between 35 and 49, the show is literally the equivalent of a Super Bowl” in that the percentages of those viewers watching “exceeded the ratings of some NFL championship games this century”.
It’s easy to see the appeal of this over-the-top tale of ailing mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), his estranged wife Cookie (a magnificent Taraji P Henson) and their three sons, all jostling for control of Empire Records, the label Lucious built from the ground up.
For starters it’s exceedingly quotable, most notably when Henson’s Cookie strides onto the screen. “The streets ain’t made for everybody, that’s why they made sidewalks,” she spat memorably in a recent episode, with other zingers including “Just ‘cos I asked Jesus to forgive you doesn’t mean I do” and “We don’t have time for you to be having some mental artsy block brain fart, whatever you’re having.”
The show pulls as few punches as its ferocious leading lady. A plotline about Lucious’s refusal to accept his talented, gay middle son is both sensitively handled and a repository for some outrageous lines. “For a queen, you sure do keep a messy place,” says Cookie to her favourite child. One recent episode saw bratty youngest son Hakeem unleash a drunken tirade in a restaurant – the object of his opprobrium was Barack Obama, whom he branded “nothing but a sellout”. The scene caused controversy, although as Henson told Time magazine: “[The scene] was to prove a point about how reckless young kids are nowadays …they don’t understand hard work, what it took for that man to get into office.” Certainly the fallout doesn’t seem to have halted Michelle Obama’s love for the show; in a recent radio interview the president admitted he’d yet to see it but his wife was “really into it”.