Will "Empire" Match Its Ratings?

Bloomberg View , February 24, 2015

The Fox broadcasting network’s drama “Empire” is already a phenomenal business success. What remains to be seen is whether it will prove an equally remarkable artistic success.

Last Wednesday’s episode drew more than 13 million viewers, making the show the first primetime series since Nielsen started tracking total viewers in 1991 to have its audience grow every single week for the six weeks since its highly rated premiere. (It actually broke the record at four weeks and just kept going.) “Primetime television has never seen a ratings growth story like Fox’s ‘Empire,’” observed Variety’s Rick Kissell.

The show, about a family-run hip-hop entertainment conglomerate on the eve of its initial public offering, is the No. 1 broadcast drama among adults 18-49, TV’s key demographic, and the top series overall among adults 18-34, according to Nielsen via Fox. The ratings triumph is particularly striking because the show's audience is 63 percent black, a proportion that has stayed essentially constant as viewership has grown.

Created by producer-director Lee Daniels and actor-writer Danny Strong, “Empire” features an ensemble as overwhelmingly black as the cast of “Mad Men” is white. For the prospects of black talent in Hollywood, and for audiences yearning to see stories with black protagonists, the ratings success of “Empire” matters more than whether “Selma” got snubbed by the Oscars.

In the new golden age of TV, however, ratings aren’t the only kind of success about which people care. Smartly crafted television dramas have become our most resonant and culturally salient forms of storytelling, and “Empire” has the potential to be a great drama -- creating memorable characters and addressing big themes. Its creators seem to aspire to that status: “We’re making statements about sexuality, the African-American experience, what happens when you come from extreme poverty and hit it big and you’re a billionaire,” Daniels told The Hollywood Reporter. In a Los Angeles Times interview, Strong described the show as “about the American dream.”

But “Empire” hasn’t yet decided whether it wants to be “'King Lear' meets 'The Godfather'”-- Strong’s original concept -- or “Black 'Dynasty',” Daniels’s shorthand. Will it explore enduring themes of authenticity and ambition? Or will it dissolve into a campy soap opera of silly cat fights and absurd plot twists, where nothing matters beyond the frisson of an individual scene? Shakespearean tragedy can’t survive in an Aaron Spelling universe.

Take Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), the ex-wife of mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and mother of the show’s three rivalrous sons. In the first episode, she’s unexpectedly released after 17 years in prison -- she took the rap for the drug dealing that provided the Lyon empire’s startup funds. Quick-witted, sharp-tongued and smart about music, Cookie is determined to reclaim what’s hers. With head-to-toe animal prints, towering heels and an arsenal of fur coats, she dresses in a millionaire’s version of what she had on when she was arrested. “Her style,” observed fashion critic Robin Givhan, “evokes the brash, attention-grabbing honesty that has its roots among the striving class.” Cookie is what she is.

At once savvy and myopic, Cookie can make brilliant moves or jump to dangerous conclusions. At one point, she interprets a single rose left at her doorstep as a gangster’s death threat, with deadly consequences. She arranges to have the presumed assassin killed first. Her actions, while desperate and frenzied, are understandable -- she’s fighting for her life. When she learns that the rose was in fact an anniversary token from Lucious, recalling their poorer days, viewers share her sinking horror as she futilely tries to reverse her lethal overreaction.

Yet what follows are cheap laughs that undercut the tragedy. Again misinterpreting the rose, this time as a proposition, Cookie shows up to meet Lucious for dinner wearing a fur coat with nothing but do-me lingerie underneath. She finds the whole family gathered to hear Lucious announce his engagement to her archrival Anika, the light-skinned debutante who is the conglomerate's head of artists and repertoire. (Cookie wants the job as well as the man.) Cookie’s cheeky exit from the room, slapping her teddy-clad butt and declaring, “Oh, and Anika, this is an ass,” is pure camp. If taken seriously, it would reveal an embarrassing neediness and subvert the character’s prison-honed emotional control. But the humiliating action is played as comic sass, feeding social-media GIFs rather than staying true to the character. It transforms Cookie from an empathetic subject into a cardboard object of ridicule.

Deliberate camp is enjoyable, but only in small doses. It soon gets tiresome. Except for some outlandish costumes and a few catty one-liners, it’s quickly forgotten. “Dynasty” may be a stylistic touchstone, but audiences rarely clamor for reruns.

“Empire” is teetering on the brink. Anyone who saw the first season of “Mad Men,” with its surprise pregnancy and catty Joan, knows that teetering does not mean a fall is inevitable. Like that soapy but serious drama (on which Strong appeared as an actor), “Empire” could turn out to bear re-watching and discussion for years to come. It could turn out to be what Henson called it: “important work.” It's certainly already important business.