Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Empire state of mind

How the Fox series won TV.

Thu, Mar 19, 2015, 12:17


Empire is breaking records all over the place. The Fox show which focusses on Luciuos Lyon, a record label mogul with a knife-sharp ex-wife, and three sons (the rapper, the RnB singer, the businessman), trying to move his empire into the stratosphere, has been a massive hit for the network.

The numbers are crazy. “We’re starting to run out of ways to praise the ratings for Fox’s Empire,” said Entertainment Weekly. In fact, the only comparison is that Empire is now breaking its own records. People are watching in massive numbers, tweeting in massive numbers, the thing is huge.

I flagged Empire last June (#justsayin). I love it. So this is my take on Why Empire Works

1. Escapism
As Vulture points out in The Empire Effect, audiences were ready for a show that was just fun. It’s been a while since a Desperate Housewives or Entourage has lit up the small screen. Hell, Empire owes as much to Dallas and Dynasty as it does to Nashville or Scandal. I’ve taken a break from television that focusses too much on brutality or grit. I can’t watch The Fall because I can think of nothing more grim than sitting down to watch something about sexual violence. I’m done with the conveyor belt of dramas about murder. Empire is GOOD FUN.

2. Ilene Chaiken
Chaiken must have done a lot of soul-searching when The L Word ended, with fans baffled author the final season descended into a farcical whodunnit. Now Chaiken has got her groove back as Empire‘s showrunner. At 57-years-old, Chaiken has the experience needed to make quality, accessible, mainstream TV, that has a camp enough edge. Chaiken made landmark television with 70 episodes of The L Word, reaching an audience that television execs probably didn’t think was there. And she also knows the reality TV game, with The Real L Word. And remember, she worked on a show with an African-American cast before too, as the coordinating producer on Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Her 10,000 hours have been clocked.

3. The music
The Empire soundtrack is now No. 1 on the U.S. album chart. This show is taking over. Music is intrinsic to the programme, and they had to get it right. Sure, a lot of it is cheesy, but it still pops. And Timbaland was the EXACT person they should have brought in as the executive music producer.

4. Cookie
The standout performance in Empire is Taraji P. Henson as Cookie. She exudes charisma, heart, soul, sass, comedy, viciousness, vulnerability. Cookie rocks.

5. Blurring lines between TV and real life
With The L Word, Chaiken had a penchant for dropping in real life references; Olivia cruises, Dinah Shore, a music video shoot for The Organ, The B52s, Snoop Dogg as ‘Slim Daddy’, Heart, Ariana Huffington, Sleater-Kinney, Russell Simmons, Tegan and Sara and Goldfrapp all featured in The L Word. One of the joys of Entourage was the cameos from actors and celebrities, because it gave that show a sense of fun and in-jokes. Empire plays the same trick, with references to real-life stars such as Lana Del Rey, as well as dropping in well known faces as versions of themselves, such as Courtney Love’s brilliant character, the washed up drug-addict singer who’s trying to get herself back on track, or Naomi Campbell as an aloof love interest. They even had Sway conduct an interview! Sway!

6. Soap works
Shonda Rhimes knows that – which is why Greys Anatomy has such incredible longevity, and Scandal is so brilliantly, hilariously, leap-of-faith enjoyable. Sometimes an audience doesn’t want five-minute tracking shots, or claustrophobic single-scene episodes, or endless symbolism and metaphors, or dream sequences. Sometimes an audience wants to follow a family, a business, a drama populated with great characters even if they are well-worn archetypes. Empire has just the right amount of soap amongst the bottles of bubbles.

7. There’s never been a big, populist, successful hip-hop show before
We have detective shows and high school musical shows, medical shows and political shows, cop shows and period dramas, shows about acting and shows about detectives, shows about gangs and shows about vets, shows about vampires and shows about prisons, shows about zombies and shows about war, shows about terrorism and shows about drugs. But there’s never been a big, populist TV show before based in the hip-hop world that works, despite hip-hop being such a massive part of popular culture everywhere. When you actually think about it, it’s a no brainer. That said, it’s worth revisiting Platinum.

8. Guess what, black viewers want to watch black characters
Most of the media is controlled by white, middle-aged, middle-class men, so again and again, we get films and television shows coming from this perspective. It’s like when Disney made Frozen and it became the most gigantic thing ever and everyone went “wow! Imagine! If you make a film with a lead female it’ll actually sell!” Well guess what, if you make a television show with a largely black cast, it’ll reach people you’re not already reaching with the endless array of white characters on television. And more than that, it’s not like white people or any other race won’t watch something just because the people in the show don’t have the same skin colour as them.

9. It’s essentially a family show
Do you want your kids to watch Breaking Bad or The Killing? Would you be cool with your kids watching The Fall? Empire fuses gloss and grit expertly. There’s no gratuitous swearing, there are plenty of comedic moments, there’s a lot about familial loyalty and love, there’s plenty about business and working your way out of the ghetto, there’s a lot of aspirational stuff, but also a lot about the evils of success and money. There are no hardcore sex scenes or over the top violence. The more people who can watch a show, the more people it will reach.

10. It breaks ground
Empire won’t have the critics falling over themselves like they did over True Detective or Borgen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not breaking ground. Having a gay character exist in the hip-hop world on TV is breaking ground. Sure, Empire isn’t stylishly cinematic, but the costume is great, the casting is fantastic, the music video shoots are fun, and even though talent singing competitions are waning, Empire shows there’s still room for musical performance in TV drama.