In fact, if someone did a statistical study on how many Black people legally bought music or a cable subscription since Empire hit the air waves, I predict a dramatic spike in the numbers.
Lee Daniels’ Empire is the sleeper hit of the season. The two hour finale pulled in just over 16 million viewers. It broke all kinds of records. It is he best first season result any new series on any broadcast network has had since the Shonda Rhimes created Grey’s Anatomy ended its debut cycle on ABC in 2005. Empire now ranks as the top-rated network series among those ages 18 to 49. Fox boasted that Wednesday represented the highest-rated night for entertainment programming among this age group since January 2012’s American Idol premiere.
No one saw the success of an all-Black television drama series on the Fox Network coming. Fox needed a hit and they found it in the most unlikely of places. How did Lee Daniels do it? Well, I haven’t spoken to the guy, but I have a few ideas on how the Empire was built. If you are looking for revolutions and progressive Black critique, I suggest you stop reading from this point forward.
All hail the Black Stereotype… and then some
For the past three years, the Black television viewer has been salivating at the feet of Shondaland and that other show (sorry, ‘Being Mary Jane' you will get no awards here). Shonda Rhimes set Thursday nights a blaze with the Kerry Washington led Scandal. Television got a strong Black woman that wasn’t playing second fiddle, maid or a random recurring role as a police officer. White women were begging her for respect, and to stop stealing the attention of their men. Scandal’s lead character Olivia Pope is a woman built on power. She gets what she wants when she wants. People need her… in a world dominated by white people.
Black people being powerful doing stereotypically Black things. And with one episode, the protests to stop pandering to Black stereotypes, or portraying Black men as aggressive womanizers from the streets, or Black women as angry and ‘ghetto’ were hushed by powerful portrayals of those very stereotypes…with money. Black people love to see Black people on TV with money, being Black with money. It sends a message of not having to ‘sell out’ to attain the ultimate symbols of success- cars, women, a club (every Black man want to own a club), and more money.
But Lee did something else, he touched all the taboo topics in a real way. He has tackled homophobia, and mental illness in the Black community in a Black way. No mincing of words, no streaming monologues stating historical facts about why we should change. He has proponents and opponents and they are all Black. In the Empire, White people aren’t the smartest ones in the room, or the progressive ones, or even necessary. Empire has not been shy or apologetic. Black stereotypes rule!
There is nothing like a classic
Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson first showcased their chemistry for us in Hustle and Flow. Their performance produced one of the greatest and most memorable Black pairings on screen. It is one of those films you watch on repeat, in complete awe of the performance. The first good thing to happen to Empire was the reunion of these two actors. It instantly got attention not for its content, but for its stars. Henson and Howard have buying power.
Daniels has followed this stroke of genius with the cameo performance. We have had cameos we loved and small bit characters we could do without. Did we enjoy seeing Estelle? Yes, girl, yes!!! Did Patti LaBelle make us squeal? Hey sister Patti, hey!!! Do we enjoy being tortured by Naomi Campbell’s bad acting and that cheap wig? Bye, Felicia!
Here is the one thing that every gay man in the Western Hemisphere knows: Empire by any other name is a MESS!!! A Falcon Crest, Dynasty, General Hospital MESS! Cookie Lyon is the modern Alexis Carrington Colby no ifs, ands or buts about it. Lee Daniels isn’t throwing a single new storyline at us. We have seen it all before in Black movies too, but when was the last time it looked this dirty, this grimy, this raw. Empire is a legendary rapper at the top of his game!
People love music. Music and television have always been a perfect marriage. We love actors who can saannggg. More importantly, we love a good musical with an original soundtrack. It’s a double dose of your favourite show and character. Win win! I call it the Nashville model. Turn your actors into musical stars, give them a second career, a second income stream and you are a guaranteed hit. This is where Glee failed, but we don't care about that!
Oh yea, and Jesus. Late in the season, Lee reminded us that Black people go to Church, but we could have done without that. But, I see you Lee pulling in all them audiences.
The secret to building an empire is to do so quietly and strategically. Don’t call too much attention to yourself, and don’t pander to the conservative left. Take what is often labelled the worst of you and make it the best of you. An analytical review of all the shows that have interrupted the Black man or woman’s work day, remix their best moments, sprinkle in a catchy musical hook and hit record. Let’s hope that Lee Daniels is equally prepared to debunk the myth of the sophomore slump.
Long live the Empire!