Empire most certainly wasn’t built in a day, but its reputation as a breakout hit has been made in virtually no time at all. Since the series debuted six weeks ago, every episode has drawn more viewers than the one before it. Buoyed by positive reviews and especially word of mouth, its ratings trajectory is quite simply bonkers, making the Fox midseason replacement a genuine cultural phenomenon.
For those who haven’t yet caught up with the hip-hop soap, Empire is the brainchild of director Lee Daniels (The Butler, Precious) and screenwriter Danny Strong (The Butler, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Parts 1 and 2). Equally inspired by King Lear and Dynasty, it centers on the mighty but shattered Lyon family, headed by rapper turned music mogul Lucious (Terrence Howard). Recently diagnosed with ALS and anxious about his legacy, Lucious makes a horrendous decision: to make his three sons compete for the throne atop Empire Enterprises, the family business. Also demanding a say in its direction is Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), newly released from prison after seventeen years after taking the fall for the couple’s drug deals.
Empire benefits from tight, fast plotting and an adequate-to-near-brilliant cast. It certainly doesn’t hide its ambitions; just in the first six episodes, it’s proven itself an expansive family melodrama, a cynical showbiz tale, a kind of reverse murder-mystery (with Lucious trying to figure out how to cover up his killing of a close associate), and an evocative musical, with superstar producer Timbaland and his team crafting original songs for each episode.
And yet what’s probably fueling Empire‘s mega-success is its appeal to underserved audiences and its explorations of underexplored themes. Here are five reasons why Daniels and Strong’s series has become a Wednesday-night (or DVR) staple.
1. Diversity is a boon to ratings.
African-American viewers have been behind three of the biggest success stories of the 2014–2015 season: Empire, Black-ish (ABC), and the Viola Davis–led How to Get Away With Murder (ABC). New episodes of Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, remain a top-ten performer in the Nielsens. Of these shows, Empire is most popular with black audiences, who constitute a whopping 61 percent of Empire‘s viewership. (A recent episode was seen by one-third of all African-American households.) Given the relative lack of black protagonists and casts on most networks, it’s hardly surprising that viewers of color are flocking to the rare show marketed to them.
2. The recognition of hip-hop as a vital cultural force.
Hip-hop is arguably the most creatively exciting (and politically vexed) musical genre today, but it’s rarely given its due by the larger culture. (There are notable exceptions, of course.) Through its songs and its storylines, Empire samples the diversity of hip-hop while retaining a necessary cynicism about how it’s marketed (fake celebrity romances, planted gossip on tabloid websites, exploitation of the tween market). The show’s writers also make compelling use of the conflict between Lucious and Cookie to explore hip-hop’s economic schizophrenia: the authenticity of the streets versus the aspirations for the penthouse or executive suite.
3. Cookie as one of the most fascinating female characters on TV today — and Taraji P. Henson’s scene-stealing performances.
Lucious is nominally the center of the show, but it’s Cookie who has become Empire‘s must-watch character. She’s a sexy, spiky, satiny ball of contradictions — a bratty imp to Lucious and his much younger fiancée (Grace Gealey) and a virtuoso negotiator and music producer (the only fictional female producer I can ever recall seeing in pop culture, in fact). Cookie loves her gay son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) enough to give the homophobic Lucious hell for literally dumping their child in the trash can for wearing a dress (reportedly an autobiographical detail from Daniels’s life), but that maternal protectiveness apparently doesn’t extend to her ex-husband’s favorite son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), who claims his mother physically abused him. As Cookie, Henson is simply exceptional — always funny or poignant or otherwise captivating — and dressed in so many beautifully clashing furs and leopard-print everything she’d inspire Cruella de Vil to join PETA.
4. The mix between high and low: Shakespeare does Dallas.
Cookie and Lucious’s three sons — straight-laced MBA grad Andre (Trai Byers), sensitive singer-songwriter Jamal, and fame-obsessed party boy Hakeem — have yet to blossom into full characters. (The first season has four more episodes to flesh them out.) But they’re fine for now as pawns aiming to be kings, with each move more deliciously overripe than the one that came before. (It does feel rather implausible that Jamal and Hakeem will end up killing each other in the way the mentally unstable Andre plots.) What the conflicts between the brothers do provide, though, is an ongoing discussion about what qualities are most needed to lead a company that reconciles art with business, that requires ambition and artistry, that confuses the personal with a persona, especially since none of the would-be heirs are ideal candidates for the job.
5. The distrust in the American Dream.
The idea that Cookie and Lucious rose from the bottom of the Bronx to a mansion in Manhattan is an American Dream come wildly, ostentatiously true: They had the talent and put in the hustle to go all the way to the top. But all that happened before the start of the show, which is more interested in whether such outrageous success can be maintained. Lucious has put his company in great jeopardy by preparing it for an IPO launch, which invites intense public scrutiny. It’s essentially a double-or-nothing bet on his life’s work.
And if much of the American mythos is about how every generation does better than its parents, here, again, we see Empire‘s skepticism toward the ability to build something and have it last. For the last two decades, Lucious has built a dynasty, not a family — so much that fratricide is an ongoing plotline on the show. Somewhere out there, Ozymandias is laughing.