Why Can’t We Stop Watching ‘Empire’?

What is it about “Empire,” the Fox series about a family of music moguls that wraps up its first season this week, that makes the show so addictive? It might be the juicy plotlines; Taraji P. Henson’s ferocious and charming portrayal of Cookie Lyon, the estranged matriarch of the family; the so-bad-it’s-almost-good soundtrack, produced by Timbaland; or some combination of all three. The soapy drama, which debuted in January, was the highest-rated new series on television this season. Its ratings and audience numbers have risen each week the show has aired — a phenomenon that is practically unheard-of. Fox has already renewed the series for a second season.

The appeal of “Empire” is widespread — roughly 15 million people watch every week — but according to Nielsen, the show resonates particularly strongly with black viewers, who make up 62 percent of its primary audience. NPR’s Code Switch blog called the “Empire” success a “particular achievement for a show with an almost entirely black cast.”

As the first season draws to a close, I reached out to several writers, academics and cultural thinkers to talk about their favorite “Empire” episodes, characters and controversial themes. Jenna Wortham

Lori Adelman, editor of Feministing.com, on black ambition

“I did it to feed myself,” explains Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), recalling his humble hip-hop beginnings as he spins a basketball on his finger in a glass-walled conference room while wearing a purple paisley Gucci scarf over a very soft-looking turtleneck. The patriarch of the show, whose character is inspired by the life story of Jay Z, Lucious is now a commercial success; in addition to being a respected rapper, he owns a club, a fashion line and a Champagne label. Artists — from the demure, successful Delphine (Estelle) to the raspy rocker Elle Dallas (Courtney Love) — jump at the chance to work with him.

But after being told he has Lou Gehrig’s disease, Lucious has decided that money isn’t enough: He needs a legacy, which will require successfully going public with his company (a feat that has yet to be achieved by any real-life black-owned label). This will require traversing new territory, rubbing elbows with the majority-white pool of millionaire and billionaire investors. “Cookie, I got to go on white TV and try and talk in a way that don’t frighten these folks to death,” Lucious says, a remark which could double as an “Empire” cast pep talk.

Lucious sets a precedent that allows other characters in “Empire” to pursue their own ambitions as well. In fact, amid numerous dizzying, salacious plotlines, ambition is a constant. Lucious’s eldest son, Andre, wants to be the label’s next C.E.O. His middle son, Jamal, wants to make music on his own terms. His youngest, Hakeem, wants to be the biggest rapper alive. And Cookie, our beloved Cookie, just wants what’s coming to her.

Like its characters, “Empire”aims high. It stands to become a major network television hit that black audiences not only enjoy but also feel a part of in its success. To be triumphantly, unapologetically successful and black — this is perhaps the show’s most lofty ambition. But thankfully “Empire”eschews the serious in favor of the entertaining, playing out these themes not with a heavy handed solemnity but with a flash of lingerie, a flamboyant fur and a well-placed Jennifer Hudson cameo.

Zeba Blay, writer and co-host of the podcast “Two Brown Girls,” on black women in Hollywood

There’s this scene in the “Empire” pilot in which Cookie Lyon, having just been called a “bitch” by her youngest son Hakeem, beats him over the back with a broom. She beats him with a broom. It’s a moment that’s ridiculous and jarring and strangely compelling — a moment that crystallizes who Cookie is and why she’s the most exciting black female character on television right now.

Her competitors for the title — Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on “Scandal,” Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) on “How to Get Away With Murder,” Mary Jane Paul (Gabrielle Union) on “Being Mary Jane” — are names that have become synonymous with an apparent Golden Age of black women on TV: characters who for the first time in decades haven’t been regulated to the sidelines but allowed to flourish at the center of network and cable series. They’re powerful and influential, and they’ve proved that shows with black leads can engage audiences and garner huge, moneymaking ratings. And yet these characters have started to play into new televised tropes of black womanhood.

Yes, they’re complex, often as vulnerable as they are strong and even a little messy. But there’s also something of the Claire Huxtable Effect in their appeal, the respectability that subtly excuses their behavior. They’re educated, well connected and outwardly pulled together, and this is what’s supposed to make them so revolutionary.

Some critics have been quick to say that Cookie — an ex-convict, clad in tacky animal prints and over-the-top furs, educated not in the Ivy League but on the streets — plays into the kind of stereotypes that shows like “Scandal” have actively distanced themselves from. But the beauty of Cookie is that she’s written in a way that subverts stereotypes not by avoiding them but by embracing them. For all her hood-ness, she’s afforded the same agency, the same complexities that her peers on other shows are. The broom scene isn’t supposed to invite our disapproval, but broaden the scope of who she is. In that way, Cookie Lyon marks a new and necessary kind of game change.

Robert Jones Jr., the creator of the blog Son of Baldwin, on the show’s colorism

I enjoy “Empire” a great deal; the music, drama and eye-candy are irresistible. But as I’m watching it, I’m reminded of what Lee Daniels oncetold the Times Magazine about how he’s working through his prejudices against dark-skinned black people and fat people. The fact that all of the show’s leads are lighter-skinned and all the assistants and servants are darker-skinned comes as no surprise. There isn’t a single legitimate friendship, meanwhile, between black women on the show. And they all have one personality type: catty. Taraji P. Henson does a spectacular job of giving Cookie dimension, but the other women on the show are merely wallpaper or props to make the men look more manly. Yet I keep tuning in, and that too is instructive. It must mean that these problematic messages appeal to some damaged part of me that requires healing.

Lee Daniels has every right to draw from his personal life in “Empire,” as he does in a pivotal scene in which Lucious Lyon throws his son Jamal into a trash can after catching him wearing his mother’s high heels (something Daniels’s own father did to him when Daniels was 5). But he makes the mistake of using what happened to him as justification to perpetuate the notion that the black community is significantly more homophobic than every other.

As a gay black man myself, I understand how hurtful it is to see the people who’ve given you life struggle with the way you were born. There is a Lucious Lyon, however, in every community. That’s what makes it so grating to hear Jamal Lyon recite lines like: “He’d never pick me…. Too much homophobia in the black community.”

When Jay Z speaks in favor of marriage equality and Kanye West and A$AP Rocky speak out against homophobia, it’s hard to believe Jamal’s declaration. Or consider Jay Z and West’s collaborator Frank Ocean, who revealed his bisexuality on Tumblr shortly before releasing his debut album and has maintained his support within the hip-hop community and the black community at large. Daniels himself has found success as a filmmaker, with “The Butler” and of course, this show.

I’d rather not politicize ”Empire,” but Daniels has gone out of his way to argue that his show is “exposing” black homophobia. In fact, all he has really done is show that he’s better at directing than he is doling out social commentary. Homophobia is rooted in two key factors — religion and misogyny — and neither are exclusively black problems. I’m open to dissections of homophobia within the black community in popular culture but not under the pretense that our homophobia has magical powers.

Black people deserve better representation — and in fact, we had it, 24 years ago. The first same-sex wedding to air on U.S. television was on the critically acclaimed but short-lived Fox sitcom “Roc,” a show about a working class family in Baltimore, which featured a primarily black cast. We proved two decades ago we can be just as progressive as anyone else. Why venture back?

The writer Rawiya Kameir on how the show refracts celebrity culture

Justin Combs got a Maybach for his 16th birthday. The $360,000 car and accompanying driver were a gift from his father, the entertainment mogul, erstwhile producer and pop-culture stalwart Sean Diddy Combs, a man who defined ostentation for an entire generation.

Five years after the younger Combs’s birthday party was immortalized on MTV’s “My Super Sweet 16,” it’s a scene I keep thinking of as I watch “Empire.” The Fox series takes as its subject the personal and musical legacy of a family that, on the surface, anyway, is not unlike Combs’s. (As it happens, Diddy reportedly prohibited another of his sons from acting in the show, over a dispute about intellectual property rights.)

Despite “Empire’s” narrative and subnarratives, its record-breaking success rests squarely on the irresistibility of its larger-than-life characters. Through its fictional premise, the show is a new kind of window on black celebrity; it contextualizes — albeit in broad strokes — the behind-the-scenes goings-on of characters who appear not unlike those who have become our collective cultural missionaries.

Clover Hope, Jezebel staff writer, on what the show gets right about the music industry

Greed, drama and excess are just a few trite elements of the music business that “Empire”excels at glamorizing. But this is a version of the recording industry that’s more romanticized than realistic. In theory, Empire Records is a label operating in 2015; in practice it’s more like an odd hybrid of the ’90s glossy era of hip-hop and a contemporary label. Lucious’s speech in the series pilot about labels competing with the Internet, for instance, while primitive, sounds exactly like an archaic executive’s post-Napster spiel. And Cookie’s artist development role is just as vague as any of today’s almost extinct A&R’s.

Ultimately, the show wins in the way it imperfectly dramatizes what artists and executives (and their families) stoop to for the sake of prestige. Under the surface, the series also does a solid job capturing the minutiae of it all. One scene that rings particularly true is the conversation about whether Hakeem’s woman-bashing song “Can’t Truss Em” is pure misogyny or a harmless metaphor that women will sing along to anyway.

“Empire” gets its highest marks for accuracy in its caricatures. The characters are all the essence of ambition and desperation and clearly drawn from real-life figures. Lucious, with his tyrannical business approach, is like a fusion of Jay Z, Russell Simmons and Diddy. Hakeem is the embodiment of a knucklehead bad boy (most notably, Chris Brown). Jamal is the prodigy and purist who could easily be a stand-in for Ryan Leslie or Miguel. While the original music borders on satire (Hakeem’s single “Drip Drop” is both epic and ridiculous), the studio drama, image obsession and general manipulation all hit on the biggest truth of the music business: everything in it is deeply personal.

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 201511

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3 thoughts on “Why Can’t We Stop Watching ‘Empire’?

  1. Pingback: Why Can’t We Stop Watching ‘Empire’? | RetroStank

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