“Empire” state of mind: Lee Daniels' new show is like "Game of Thrones" for the hip-hop world

Finally, Fox has delivered a black family drama

Published January 6, 2015 11:59PM (EST)

  (Fox/Chuck Hodes)
(Fox/Chuck Hodes)

The powerful, dysfunctional and at times criminal family at the center of “Empire” share the last name Lyon, a fitting name for a fierce, squabbling, proud family. And in our current television landscape, it brings to mind another family that uses a lot of lion imagery, the Lannisters on “Game of Thrones.” Both families consist of three very different kids, a domineering father, and at least when the series starts, an absent mother. The difference is that while you could say the Lannisters are, as Myles McNutt argued last year on Twitter, the embodiment of white privilege, the Lyons are black—and in the playing field of the modern-day music industry instead of the fantasy world of Westeros.

Everything else about “Empire” is going to be less relevant than this fact, simply because it’s so rare. There are a lot of splashy, melodramatic shows centering around the trials and tribulations of a wealthy family—see “Dynasty,” “Downton Abbey” and “Dallas”; “The O.C.” and “The Borgias.” There are far fewer shows about the towering drama of a family of color, whether that’s black, Latino or Asian. Attempts have been made in a few different directions—Pope family drama has become more and more central to “Scandal,” and BET’s “The Haves and the Have Nots,” by Tyler Perry, is a prime-time soap opera that folds class politics and racial politics under one wealthy (and uneasy) roof.

But by and large, families of color on television live on sitcoms, not dramas. To be more specific, there are very rarely black parents in a drama. When people of color inhabit dramas, it’s often in workplace procedurals or mixed casts, where the general sphere of influence—the world the characters live in—is still recognizably governed by the status quo (i.e., white people). So “Scandal’s" first two seasons put Olivia and her team under the direct influence of the White House; “Law & Order” has its characters of color working on the right side of the law. There’s always someone with more authority, somewhere up the chain, who is in all likelihood not black but white. TV about the criminal element gets to play with that more; in “Breaking Bad,” Walter White’s nemesis for a long time was Gus, played by Giancarlo Esposito; in “The Wire,” the police pitted themselves against Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale. But in case you haven’t seen them, spoiler alert: None of those three characters survive their respective shows. If it’s difficult to ideate a world where characters of color are older, reputable, part of the status quo and running the show, it might be because they can only find those avenues of power outside the system—and are punished as a result.

Given this framework, Fox's new drama “Empire,” debuting Wednesday night, takes up an interesting space on television. Every character, save two, is black; both of the non-black characters are significant others, Latino and white, respectively. And the two leads are a patriarch and a matriarch: Lucious and Cookie Lyon, played by Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, who are both Academy Award nominees and industry veterans. “Empire” gives them—and Henson particularly, as the mother returning to her family after a long absence—room to display their considerable talents. And what remains indelible about both of their characters is not just their nuance and depth of emotion, but their power. “Empire” treats viewers to a power play between the two that started 17 years ago, when Cookie went to prison, and continues in the present day by using their money, their company and even their children as pawns in the game. Molly Eichel at the A.V. Club called it a modern-day “Lion in Winter,” and the analogy could not be more apt: Cookie could easily match Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitane, right down to the “Hush, dear, mother’s fighting.” Instead of lands in France and Britain, “Empire’s" monarchs have a very high-profile record label and musical talent—but the game of power is the same.

It’s not that “Empire” is without its flaws. The show was brought to Fox by filmmaker Lee Daniels and his frequent collaborator Danny Strong. Daniels’ work often errs too far on the side of melodrama—though it usually gets critical attention anyway, for telling stories about race that other directors won’t. So, “Empire” is unabashedly soapy, and it has enough in common with “Nashville” that some viewers might prefer to stick to “Nashville.” The storytelling leans on flashbacks that put everyone in different hair and costumes, which comes off a little campy at times. The ins and outs of the music industry are supposed to be the show’s bread-and-butter, but what we see of it in the pilot is over-the-top and a little too convenient. It remains to be seen if the strength of the performances from the rest of the cast (which includes another Academy Award nominee, Gabourey Sidibe—it might be hard to find work as a black actor, hm?) will balance out the show’s pulpy premise.

At first blush, those dysfunctional family dynamics seem recognizable enough to override those concerns. The pilot episode leans hard into the idea that Lucious has been a distant, dismissive father for his middle son, Jamal, because Jamal is gay. It’s a story told with brutal simplicity, and is expressed through music, as it ought to be in a show like this. And though “Empire” is not a show that could be accused of restraint, Jamal’s relationship with Lucious is a glimpse of a much bigger issue: Homophobia in the black community, as discussed by documentarians, actors and columnists alike. It’s fascinating to be able to see actors, writers, producers and directors from a community address a specific problem within it—it’s that same zoomed-in examination that characterized Jill Soloway’s “Transparent.” As is also true of the music industry, sometimes a TV show doesn’t have to be perfect or complete in order to catch the eye. “Empire” is notable for doing something different, in a landscape populated by dramas of an entirely different stripe. For that, and that alone, it’s worth checking out.

By Sonia Saraiya

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Empire Fox Taraji P. Henson Terrence Howard The Lion In Winter Tv