It came, we saw, it conquered.
The titanically successful first season of “Empire” came to a close on March 18 with a two-hour smorgasbord of such nutty, messy and soapy opera it’s a wonder nobody slipped and fell. But as anyone who’s paid attention to the show can tell you, all “Empire” has done is rise, and rise and rise and rise. The episode brought in a season-high 16.7 million viewers, capping off a run of ten consecutive weeks of viewership growth.
The finale doesn’t easily lend itself to easy summary. Something this overstuffed and flat out insane is meant to be watched and tweeted about, not summarized. But to start, misdiagnoses are revealed, an important character is nearly killed by another, alliances form and break in the blink of an eye, hostile takeovers are planned, girl fights ensue, and at the end of it all, our ruthless yet charismatic “Empire” founder Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) found himself behind bars.
So now that it’s all over, let’s take a big long collective breath… Didn’t help, right? This show is just something else.
To be fair, Primetime’s biggest success in a decade (going back to the beginnings of “Desperate Housewives,” “Lost” and “Grey’s Anatomy”) is not doing much new. The show itself said as much in the first episode. When Lucious tells his three sons that they must vie for consideration to inherit his company, the middle one Jamal (Jussie Smollett) scoffs, “What, we ‘King Lear’ now?”
“Empire” creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong know that tales of familial struggle, of betrayal and corruption and opulence and decadence, go back to the days of Shakespeare, when the most famous black figure in popular culture was named Othello and not Olivia. Recent fiction has also delivered similarly soapy family dramas in “Dynasty,” “Dallas” and “Nashville.” Yet even still, “Empire” is something else.
Has there been anything on prime time TV this ludicrously, unapologetically itself, this proudly enclosed in its own world of glamour and garishness, this — there can be no way around it — black?
Now this isn’t the proper space to open up about what constitutes as blackness in contemporary America, but when we look at “Empire’s” competition when it comes to black representation — Tyler Perry’s “The Haves and Have Nots,” those stories hailing from Shondaland, BET’s “Being Mary Jane” and “The Game” — “Empire” certainly seems to exist on another playing field. “Black-ish,” this ain’t.
This is the sort of show in which ideas and stereotypes of blackness are poured into a stew and cooked to boil, the fumes intoxicating some and choking others. Everything’s here: black men’s struggles with homophobia, the black businessman with the light-skinned wife, the black businessman with the white wife, the show’s glittering, grandiose milieu (like something straight out of P. Diddy’s music videos), rap music’s misogyny, the black community’s unease with mental illness, inner city crime and upward mobility. Any one of these subjects could drive a somber, prestigious cable drama. That co-creator Lee Daniels has them all in one melodrama speaks to his unabashed and inspired trashiness. In expressing all these sociologically complex ideas in the language of cheap thrills, Daniels is practically daring us to be appalled — or worse, to actually love it.
But this should surprise no one used to Daniels’ work. This is a man who doesn’t deliver the goods in delicate manner or respectable decor. This is the artist who gave us the expressive urban fairytale “Precious” and the Southern-style cooked pulp thriller “The Paperboy.” These cinematic works are sweaty and humid. They’re the sort of messy and dipped-in-grease meals that leave you with a full belly and clogged arteries. Even his last film “The Butler” has a sort of unsanitized and fervid approach to history that separates it from the usual safe cleanliness of historical dramas.
But what Daniels does best of all in all these works is to see his characters and the world they inhabit at eye level. This is why the trashiness of “Empire” almost sparkles. Whatever Daniels is saying about blackness, or America’s ideas of blackness, the characters couldn’t care any less. They are themselves.
Is any character on television today as grandly herself as Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon? With her leopard prints and Prada bags, her tweet-ready dialogue and her love for her children that likens itself to a lioness, the Howard grad is currently the Queen diva on prime time. But it’s more than that. Henson, an Oscar nominated performer still criminally underused in Hollywood, somehow transcends the material around her. She’s like Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer.” She’s strolling through a rainstorm without getting wet. She’s larger than life, yet still, she resembles something human.
But the center of the show is still Howard’s Lucious, a man who can quite easily be labeled a villain. He murders, steals and cheats his way through the first season, and he never apologizes. This sort of awfulness puts him in line with television’s most famous anti heroes: Tony Soprano, “Mad Men’s” Don Draper, and “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White.
So far, the writing in those shows is clearly a brain cell or two above the writing on “Empire.” But in giving TV a black anti hero of this stature, the playing field has suddenly started to shift.
And that shift has happened across the board. A quick search of upcoming TV pilots reveals a substantial number of black actors in strong roles. Actors like Meagan Good, Paula Patton, Morris Chestnut, Mike Epps, Lance Gross, Anika Noni Rose and others find themselves with promising projects this year.
Can we thank “Empire” for all this new color? Perhaps. The show tells us what many of us have known for ages: black actors can anchor shows, and they can be successful, simply because the black audience has been so starved for representation.
“Empire” helps solve that problem and then some. It may not be a great show — hell, it’s pretty stupid most of the time — but it sure knows what it means to entertain. It does this using a fresh Hip-Hop vernacular that appeals to more than just black audiences. Its characters, like the bipolar oldest son Andre (Trai Byers) or the cocky, brash youngest son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), have enough layers to at least give the appearance of depth. And it throws so much drama — both high and low — at the screen that distinguishing between the two becomes almost impossible. So it isn’t really like the dramas of Shakespeare, in which there are often a set of clownish characters to counterpoint the tragic exploits of the main protagonists. Here everyone is a clown, and everyone is tragic.
But what’s any of that matter? One gets the sense that, ultimately, “Empire” doesn’t care what you think. Do you think it insults black people? “Empire” doesn’t care. Do you think Patti Labelle shouldn’t be caught dead on this show? “Empire” doesn’t care. Do you know what a “thot” is? “Empire” doesn’t care. Like the rappers on our radio stations, it’s going to do its own thing. “Empire’s” the Kanye of television: no matter what it does, it knows you can’t get enough.