With an audience of nearly 22 million for its March finale, Fox's "Empire" is a creature so rare that some thought it extinct: a bona fide network TV hit. But the show, which took center stage at Fox's presentation of its fall season to advertisers last month, came to that old-fashioned success in a very newfangled way, effectively combining cable innovation with broadcast muscle.
When co-creators Danny Strong and Lee Daniels were pitching the show in 2013, Strong recalls, "network television was getting hammered by cable." Even with ABC's "Scandal," one of the brightest spots in a dim firmament demonstrating the power of combining a multiracial cast with twist-driven storytelling, a sprawling soap opera about a hip-hop mogul's struggle to select an heir — especially one shot in Daniels' characteristically operatic style — might have been a tough sell. Even so, Strong says, "Lee and I were just going to do our thing. We were never worried about fitting into any box or model."
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"I didn't think Fox would ever pick it up," admits Taraji P. Henson, whose performance as smack-talking jailbird Cookie Lyon has made her the show's breakout star — the face that launched a thousand GIFs. "I thought, 'This is an amazing script. It's probably going to end up on cable.' We'll put this incredible pilot in the can, and then Fox will choke. When they decided to put it on, it was like, 'OK, this is going to change the game.' Then it was just waiting for the numbers."
The numbers, when they came, were impressive: Nearly 10 million for "Empire's" January premiere. Ratings grew the following week, and the week after that, and the week after that, until Nielsen ran out of shows to compare it to. They'd quite literally never seen anything like it.
Given "Empire's" largely African American cast and its melodramatic roots, it's not surprising that a good chunk of that audience was female and nonwhite, viewers not always well served by the premium-cable shows that have driven TV's newest golden age. "They got the show 'black-ish'?" Henson says, "We're 'Black-is.'"
But "Empire" is too big for any generalization about its audience to hold for long. Producer Brian Grazer recalls attending a dinner party thrown by Google's Eric Schmidt where "Empire's" soundtrack found its way onto the stereo. "One guy was the undersecretary to the Middle East," he says, "one girl was curing cancer, and they were all totally grooving on this album."
"It touches so many of the people I intended it to touch," says Daniels, whose relationship with his late father inspired the scene in the pilot in which Terrence Howard's Lucious drops his gay son in a garbage can. "I go out in the street and I talk to people whose lives these really are, and I hear how deeply it resonates." But he also found fans in line at a Broadway play, where he was the only black person in sight. "I asked them, 'Why do you like the show?' and they said, 'It's about power.' What I saw as personal is really quite universal."
As Strong and Daniels talk with Grazer and show runner Ilene Chaiken, words like "alchemy" and "magic" fly frequently; Henson calls the series "the perfect storm." But whether viewers notice or not, there are concrete reasons why "Empire" doesn't feel like any other show on the air. Rather than call on TV's usual suspects, the series has made a deliberate effort to diversify its staff. The only straight white man to direct an episode in "Empire's" first season was Strong, and, he joked, "I had to create the show to get the job."
In fact, Chaiken said, it was Strong who told her when she came onboard that the show wanted to use a good number of female directors, which, she admitted, "is really, really hard to do in television. Especially when you're creating so much product, it's really easy to fall into hiring the same bunch of white guys over and over again. But the show wouldn't be the show."
Strong "rejects 100%" the idea that writers should hail from the same background as their characters — that, for example, there's anything wrong with a white man creating a show about an African American hip-hop dynasty — but Daniels demurs, in a way that suggests they've had this argument many times before. "I agree with him, because he's so good at telling this story," Daniels says. "But I also think that the execution of it has to come from a person who has that experience. I ain't ever" — and here he names a sexual act that gay men like himself are unlikely to perform — "so I can't write about that, ever. You have to know that for me to tell an actor, 'This is what I want you to feel.'"
Daniels and Strong say their experience with Fox has been an overwhelmingly positive one, although Daniels does recall Strong texting him, "Shut up and just take the note" when a conference call threatened to turn contentious. But Henson and Howard had worked in network TV before, and they weren't eager to return. If they were going to, things would have to work differently.
"With 'Law & Order: L.A.,' I chose to go by the book," Howard says. "I would quietly complain, but at the end of the day, I would say what they told me to say. And we got canceled." The same went for "Wayward Pines," which, due to the vagaries of network programming, just started airing even though Howard shot it first. "When I got to this show — my daddy told me, 'You have to stand for something or you'll fall for anything.' So there were a lot of moments where I created anarchy on the set for the sake of the end product."
That "anarchy," as Howard put it, meant bucking the writers' decision to have Cookie snitch on Lucious in the finale or to have Lucious inadvertently give himself away by sleeping with an undercover FBI agent. Not playing ball, he said, gave the show "this other little touch, and as a result, we got 21 million people that watched the finale." In the coming season, he hopes to sit back and let the show runners do their job, "but at the end of the day, they're the coaching teams and we're the players on the field."
If that sounds a little like letting the inmates run the asylum, well, it's hard to argue with the way it's running now. As networks try to emulate "the 'Empire' effect," they'd do well to consider how the show is made and not just what ends up on the screen. "Everyone was saying appointment TV doesn't exist anymore," Henson says. "It does when you don't take your audience for granted. Don't keep them safe. The world is not safe."