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'Empire' producer Ilene Chaiken promises moments that will make fans rise from their seats

'Empire' producer Ilene Chaiken promises moments that will make fans rise from their seats
Producer Ilene Chaiken arrives at an "Empire" event in Los Angeles. The hit Fox show returns with its second season on Wednesday. (Angela Weiss / Getty Images)

"Empire" showrunner Ilene Chaiken is fully aware of unbridled anticipation for the return of the hit Fox show.

"I can't go on Twitter without being reminded," she told The Times.

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Well, it's finally "Empire" Wednesday, and the show returns for its second season. After its full-charged ratings build last season, how the audience receives the show in its sophomore season will likely be a central point of interest.

FULL COVERAGE: All things 'Empire'

Its Season 1 finale brought in 17 million viewers at a time when it seemed the death knell had been rung on broadcast television bringing in such numbers.

We spoke to Chaiken, who previously worked on "The L Word" and "Black Box," about the show's return.

When did you get the sense that this was something big? And what do you attribute it to?

First and foremost, it was thrilling and gratifying to see viewers really latch on to the Lyon family. But really early on we could see that people were responding positively to the show. I really think seeing the Twitter conversations was when it became clear.

I don't know what to attribute it to, but what I felt take shape was this incredible audience engagement and this voracious appetite for the show and a great sense of ownership of the audience. We heard every single scream and howl and gasp that those scenes provoked, and we loved every moment of it as writers and producers. It keeps us going. It's what we set out to do.

I'm really struck by the appetite that the fans for the show have for these stories that haven't been told on television. That excites me more than anything. And defying conventional wisdom — because it took awhile for people to notice this was not a fluke. We were reaching an audience that was underserved and hungry.

In your view, what did this show's first-season meteoric rise say about the relevance of appointment television in an increasingly on-demand world?

It said that people will watch good content in droves if it's supplied. High brow, low brow, network recognition, time slot — none of that really matters. If they like it, if they are entertained, they will come back. And they'll tell their friends.

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How are you feeling about the longer order and settling into a story pace that keeps people on the edge of their seat without jerking them around. You have an 18-episode over, up from 12. How is it settling into a story pace?

We were anticipating a longer order. With success on broadcast television, that's to be expected, so we were prepared for it. It's obviously more work, but other than that, no different. It was definitely daunting at first. But Fox broke up the season in a really smart way that enables us to approach it in much the same way.

So, we are able to spend as much time on each episode as we did in the first season. The show will not suffer from having a bigger order.

On that topic, how do you keep the momentum going?

Here's how I approach it. Firstly, I love the show. There's so much story to tell. We're certainly not at a loss. It's not like we don't have characters or stories we don't want to continue following.

We put our heads down and just dive in and focus on telling good stories. The most important thing to me is that when you do a show like this, you know intuitively whether you're doing it right, and you just don't stop until it's there.

You don't rest on your laurels. You don't accept anything less than what you think made the show great before, and you try to find what will keep it great again. You find new things, you go new places, you meet new people. But you live by the same rules: It has to be great. It has to make us — the writers — laugh and scream and howl in the room. If the writers are screaming and laughing and having a great time, then I know we're doing it.

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Talk about where we pick up in Season 2.

We're not picking up immediately. A little time has passed. A specific amount of time has passed, although, I'm not sure I want to say. But it's not a seamless continuation of the story.

We'll kind of presume that certain things have happened in the interim. We may reference things that have happened in the interim. But we're jumping ahead in time just a little bit. There are a few moments that will make you rise from your seat in just the first couple of episodes.

What was that first day like in the writers' room when it was time to break the first episode of Season 2?

I spent time with [creators] Lee Daniels and Danny Strong before we started the writers' room, talking about what we wanted to do this year.

Each of us have a different purview. I come in with story and tent poles and an idea of arching out a season. Danny comes at it somewhat in that way, but given his background as a screenwriter, a much more granular, character-oriented way. Lee comes at it thematically. He's like, "These are the things I want to talk about this year. Things that are important to my experience and to the experience of being black in America."

So we come in with all of that and just throw it on the table, and we blue sky it. We invite the writers to come in and join us in a conversation about all of that. And then we start to shape it.

How do you keep the whiplash moments from taking over from the story lines?

By checking ourselves. By making sure as much as it is essential to us to have those moments, we always have to be true to character. Sometimes we'll aim for a moment and circle back and say, "You know what, let's not do that here because that's really not what would happen." It's happened several times in breaking second-season stories.

Do you have an example of when you've had to pull back?

Well, I don't want to talk about Season 2 because you never know if we'll revisit. But there was something in Season 1. We broke a story in the room in which Andre, while he was having his bipolar break, which was pretty spectacular, he was pursuing someone we thought was his adversary, and he runs him over with a car. And we said, you know, that's a bridge too far. No one would ever do such a thing — and then Suge Knight ran a guy over with a car.

And speaking of that, look, we don't rip from the headlines. A lot of our writers know the world so well that everything that's happening in that world is on our radar. A story we threw out — we were going to do a ghostwriter story early in the season. We decided not to do it, but then you have the Meek Mill and Drake thing. But it does make me realize that we really know what we're telling stories about. We know the world we're telling stories about.

How about for Cookie? How do you keep that character from overrunning the show? Although, I don't think anyone would have a problem with that.

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We love writing Cookie. But the important thing to remember is that although people remember her by those fabulous one-liner moments, by those big stunts, that there's really heart to this character and a lot of story to tell, and it's really about her relationships and about her wants and wishes and ambitions. And as long as we keep it there versus saying, "Oh, can we have another Cookie meme moment," we're good.

I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy

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