The trailers for the Lee Daniels inspired Empire have had me riveted since mid fall when I first started seeing them shown during various FOX shows. Is FOX is really going to greenlight a scripted series about an urban music label? Is America ready for more black faces dominating an hour of prime time television? I’m sure FOX had to be relieved when they saw the ratings for ABC’s Black-ish, which is holding up well in it’s cushy post Modern Family time slot, and the power of Shonda Rhimes who is doing wonders with Thursday nights with her block of Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder, with the latter two of these shows performing very well on the Neilsen ratings chart. Maybe it’s finally time to see more faces of color on prime time. But will FOX really stick with Empire a show so gritty and “urban” that it seems like it could be better fit on BET? Only time will tell, but they should.
I actually wish this show was on HBO or Showtime, because then I think it could really cement its place as one of the most intriguing shows on television. We have yet to see a show about the real inside of a music label. On cable, there are no holds barred. Language and imagery isn’t guarded and artistic expression is at the discretion of the directors and creators of every program. On network TV, situations needed to be handled with more care. Although network TV has come a long way since “Little House on the Prarie,” and “The Cosby Show,” you still can only get away with so much on prime time television these days. Empire, while providing a closer look into the world of a major urban music label, is rolling the dice on keeping its authenticity while appealing to advertisers on Madison Avenue. We all know network TV is a numbers game. If Empire doesn’t get the push that it needs from the viewers, it will be gone like a J. Holiday record, fast.
Empire is the story of one family’s musical empire. The family is led by Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard, as a former drug dealer turned hip hop star, who became a mogul and CEO of a record label after his ex-wife, Cookie Lyon, played by the ferocious Taraji P. Henson, went away for a seventeen year prison bid for drug dealing. The money that she made gave Lyon the start he needed. He divorced her while she was serving time. Now she is out of prison, and wants to get back what she feels is hers. The two have three sons, Hakeem Lyon (played by Bryshere Gray) his youngest son, who is obsessed with fame and is a rising hip hop star. He has talent and star power and is Lucious favorite son. Jamal Lyon, the middle son, (played by Jussie Smollet) is a very talented singer/songwriter. He is gay, clashes with Lucious, and despises the corporate structure of the music industry. However, he is the real talent of the family. And lastly, there is Andre Lyon, the eldest son (played by Trai Byers) who is Wharton educated and wants to take control of the family business. Throw in the fact that Lucious has just been diagnosed with ALS, and you have a compelling drama in front of you. Power, money, greed, success, fame, fortune, sacrifice, and music, is the Lyon family legacy, and based off the pilot episode that premiered after American Idol this past Wednesday, we should be entertained each week. The question is…will people continue to tune in. Here are the reasons why FOX should not turn their back on this show.
1) The Lee Daniels Factor.
Lee Daniels has become a major player in Hollywood. He is the force behind Precious, Monster’s Ball, and The Butler. He is a creative force to be reckoned with. All of his projects are well crafted, interesting, serious, and visual. He is extremely creative dude and now has the name recognition to carry a show. FOX is taking a chance on him with this series. Empire is created by Daniels. He co-wrote and directed the pilot. Daniels is one of the smartest men working in Hollywood today. He will deliver the goods.
2) The show has a strong ensemble cast.
Terrence Howard has been doing his thing for years in over 40 films. We already know he can handle musical dramas as seen in his Academy Award nominated performance in 2005’s Hustle and Flow in which he played a pimp and drug dealer who turned to music to save his life. Taraji P. Henson is no stranger to strong acting roles. She has appeared on the small and big screen in numerous projects, most notably receiving an Academy Award nomination for her role as Queenie in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Gabourey Sidibe, plays one of Lucious’ assistants. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in Lee Daniels film Precious, playing the title role of that film. Also, Malik Yoba, who plays Vernon Turner, one of Lucious longtime business partners and friends. Yoba was the star of one of FOX’s longtime running police dramas New York Undercover. The rest of the cast is filled out by lesser known actors and actresses who are all really talented in their own rights. In upcoming episodes musicians Courtney Love and Macy Gray will join the cast. And bottom line, Terrence Howard’s hair though… I mean that alone is worth the hour of your time.
3) The music on the show is legit.
Daniels needed to find someone with a strong musical ear to help provide substance for his show. He turned to Timbaland to become the musical producer for the show. Smart move. Timbaland has produced hits for some of the biggest artists of the world such as Jay-Z, Justin Timberlake, Madonna, and Missy Elliot. Timbaland is in charge of all of the music on this show. He gets his clues from the writing team who lets him know plot themes in the show and then Tim crafts original songs to meet those themes. Daniels went on record to say, “The story drives the music, the music doesn’t drive the story.” Columbia Records will release original weekly soundtracks on iTunes, just like they did with FOX’s other musical hit Glee. Just listen to the music in the pilot episode and you realize that we are dealing with quality performances and production throughout this show.
4) The Brian Grazer effect.
One of the executive producers on the show is Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment. Most things that Imagine Entertainment touch, turn to gold. Grazer is one of the best producers of American entertainment today. He co-founded Imagine Entertainment with director Ron Howard and has been behind some of the biggest hits to reach the big screen such as A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, 8 Mile, Boomerang, The Nutty Professor, and The Da Vinci Code. When it comes to the small screen he has been behind Felicity, Arrested Development, Friday Night Lights, Lie to Me, and Parenthood. Grazer has his misses here and there, but usually comes out on top when he attaches his name to a project. His credentials alone should give this shows first season a legit boost.
5) Its American Idol lead-in.
Even though NBC’s The Voice has taken over as the number one music reality based program, FOX’s longtime running American Idol, has been a ratings king for years. Now in it’s 14th season, Idol continues to pull in strong numbers for FOX. Even though it is not as dominant as it once was, Empire should be able to capitalize on whatever numbers Idol brings in, especially with fans who like hip hop and R&B music, which the show is focused around.
6) Black-ish has set the tone.
ABC’s Black-ish has shown that an all-black cast can bring in ratings on prime time television. Although Black-ish is a comedy, the weekly numbers that it brings in for the key 18-49 demographic are strong, which had to help the producers of Empire realize that their show has a chance to catch on. FOX has always been the one major network out of the big four to experiment with diversity, and Empire has a prime time slot in the middle of their weekly schedule. FOX would love it to be Glee big, like it was in it’s hey day, but don’t expect those kind of numbers. Empire should do for FOX what Nashville does for ABC. However, this show has the appeal to reach a larger audience at a better time slot. It’s on at 9pm versus 10pm for Nashville.
7) The show is loosely based on Shakespear’s King Lear.
What’s more famous than the work of William Shakespear? Empire continues the mold of Shakespearian tragedies being retooled for modern day audiences. (think Sons of Anarchy) Set up as a The Sopranos style family drama with a music label as it’s backdrop, the heir of the family has to decide who is going to take over his empire when he is no longer around. That alone leads to conflict and discension amongst members of the family who all want a piece of the pie. Tensions are sure to mount on a weekly basis as Lucious Lyon has to decide the fate of his well-constructed empire. His past sins are all catching up to him at the same time which should provide for some riveting drama amongst the members of his family and corporation. King Lear provides a great story board for interesting dialouge and television.
8) Hip hop needs a place on mainstream TV.
I don’t know if the hip hop industry will embrace Empire as much as it hopes they would, but they should. Attaching Timbaland to the project gives the show instant credibility. He is a veteran of urban music and is still a major player in the hip hop/R&B world today. If the show provides good music, it will bring in viewers. The cast alone has enough strong names within the black community that should make people give the show a shot. There are no other shows on TV right now that really attack and embrace hip hop culture. Even though the show misses in some areas (no major label conference rooms will be made up of 75% African Americans) it tries to show aspects of the everyday music label, such as the glamorization of artists, major parties, club life, recording in the studio, lavious events, homes, clothes, cars, and msot notably, live performances. It’s yet to be seen where the show will go next, but hip hop has provided us with a platform that is worth exploring and exposing to the masses. As it’s music continues to cultivate and shine artistically and financially, the backstories of it’s success are worth sharing and dramatizing. You get a stong Motown feel with the Lyon family, with Lucious himself resembling a Berry Gordy like presence, that is exciting and powerful. I only hope FOX will continue to support this show and give it the legs that it needs because it could be a game changer for the network and for the industry itself. Let’s just hope people don’t miss Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson too much, because the big dogs of FOX are now on Wednesdays at 9pm.
Empire is on FOX Wednesdays at 9pm.