For the third straight week, FOX’s new hip hop drama Empire actually attracted more viewers than it did the week before, amassing an audience of 11.3 million people on Wednesday. In an era where shows are losing viewership every week, what Empire is doing is undoubtedly impressive. Even if you don’t like the show, it’s definitely important to examine what’s making it a success, and what that could mean for the future of TV. So I’m gonna give it my best shot, here we go!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, here’s a quick summary: Empire revolves around a hip hop mogul (Iron Man’s Terrence Howard) who wants to groom one of his three sons into becoming his successor. Unfortunately, everything is thrown into chaos when his ex-wife Cookie (Person Of Interest’s Taraji P. Henson) gets out of jail, and is intent on receiving a part of the company she helped create 17 years ago.
Of course, there’s infinitely more than that. Four episodes in and Empire is already insanely complicated, but thats the basic premise: A family drama set inside the hip hop industry.
That is also part of what makes Empire successful, the premise is pretty unique in and of itself. There isn’t another drama that revolves around the hip hop industry, the only other one set in the music industry is Nashville, which plays to an entirely different audience. It is a rarity that TV ventures into new territory, thats what makes shows like The Last Man On Earth and Fresh Off The Boat so exciting. It’s hard for audience’s to get behind another cop show (*cough* Backstrom *cough*), but a series that’s exploring something new, like Empire, is something that viewers can get behind.
Another thing that helps Empire’s appeal? Diversity.
Empire has two black leads and a majority of the cast is African American. TV gets a lot of flack these days for it’s lack of diversity, but it is puzzling to try and understand why the disparity in representation still exists. Most of the biggest new hits of the season have non-white leads (Black-Ish, Cristela, Scorpion, Empire, and How To Get Away With Murder), while another new show with a Latina lead has become a critical darling, and received multiple awards for the CW (Jane The Virgin). Even when you examine TV as a whole, a diverse cast seems to connect better with audiences (See: Orange Is The New Black or Scandal, or even Brooklyn Nine Nine). Empire capitalizes on the public’s desire to see different types of people on TV.
Empire also has a major character that is gay, and whose sexuality and search for acceptance in the hip hop community plays heavily into the storyline of the show. His character arc is probably the one that works best, though it certainly has problems. But the point remains that Empire is doing things that haven’t really been on broadcast TV before. Additionally, that storyline is something that spurs conversation after the show ends, something that is contributing to the week-to-week viewership gains the show has made.
On top of all that, the music side of Empire, spearheaded by producer Timbaland, is something that helps the show tremendously. Though the music isn’t extraordinary by any stretch, it does turn what should be a pretty bad episode of TV into something mildly entertaining. For example, the second episode of the show was a mess, to put it lightly. But a strong musical number gave the episode emotional and dramatic payoff that it really didn’t deserve. So the casual viewer doesn’t walk away thinking, “That wasn’t a very good episode of TV,” instead they end up with that song stuck in their head and the wrong idea about the dramatic merits of what they just watched.
So Empire has appeal, there’s no denying that. Is it a good show though? Well, thats a more complicated question.
The show that I think works best in comparison to Empire is USA’s Suits. Suits is everything an over-the-top, uber-stylized, soap opera should be. The show is gripping twist-filled, thrilling entertainment that delicately balances the line between brainless and brilliant. It’s the kind of show that just so unrealistic and mindless that it works astonishingly well. Seriously, Suits is one of the most flat out entertaining series on right now.
Empire’s pilot episode follows this formula brilliantly. It’s just trashy enough to keep the plot moving and give it some drama, but well produced and performed enough to keep you from rolling your eyes. Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie is grounded enough to keep her believable and and story is laid out quickly, so the audience doesn’t have the time to realize none of it makes much sense.
On top of all that, the pilot features what is probably the crowning achievement of the show so far in “Good Enough”, a musical number that not only moves the plot forward, but lays out an entire character’s basic thesis statement without pandering to the audience. “Good Enough”, for me, represents a best case scenario for Empire. The scene is a manifestation of the potential the show has. The most important thing in a series like this is that each character’s motivations for their actions are clear, or at least make some sense. The song is basically Jamal turning to the camera and saying ‘Hi, I’m Jamal. Everything I do from this point forward on the show will be to prove to my father that I am talented and deserve his love.’
This is also the reason why Jamal’s storyline works when the others don’t. Jamal’s motivation is clear, you always know what he wants at any given moment. You don’t quite understand what Cookie is up to. I know her character is supposed to be a mystery box/wildcard type anyway, but it still keeps her from being someone that audiences can understand and root for.
The same goes for Terrence Howard’s Lucius, who hasn’t really revealed his motivations beyond ‘I’m dying and I want one of my sons to run the business’ either. Plus, after the twist at the end of the pilot, his character isn’t exactly likable anyways. The same problem persists for every major player: Hakeem (Pictured Left), the young playboy rapper, hasn’t been developed beyond ‘I’m rich, young, and irresponsible.’ The other son, Andre, looked like he could be the responsible one, but has more turned into a ‘I’m willing to do anything for the business’ type, sort of. He still hasn’t been fully developed either.
The pilot episode works well because none of these characters were really making moves yet, the board was still getting set up. You expect a show to lay out what each character’s motivation is, but Empire started playing the game before the audience really knew how each game piece worked, to continue with the board game metaphor.
Suits, on the other hand, took it’s time laying out who each character is, waiting almost a full season before launching into full blown, power-seizing, intense stare down, soap opera mode. This allowed the audience to know each character’s motivation inside and out, so that each time someone makes a move, the audience understands the big picture of the situation.
What plagues Empire is that, outside of Jamal, the show’s characters are difficult to understand and truly get behind. You never quite know why someone is doing what they’re doing. Empire could be a really fun, really entertaining, really trashy TV drama, but it’s lack of character development is what’s truly holding the show back.
That being said, Empire has clearly tapped into something big. The show is undeniably popular and only looks to be gaining momentum, and it has given FOX a huge win to start off 2015. Will this lead to more networks taking risks and greenlighting more diverse, different shows in the future? That remains to be seen. But, Empire could be the start of a new trend for TV, and that is really exciting.