Empire Scores Big By Using Classic Soap Elements
Fox has found a hit with its new night time soap Empire. If you’ve been living under a rock and haven’t watched yet, the series documents the power struggles of the Lyon family and their hip hop music empire. It’s based in part on King Lear and The Lion In Winter. Saying ratings for the newborn series have been good would be a major understatement. The pilot had 9.9 million viewers and that number increased to 10.23 million with its second episode entitled “The Outspoken King.”
The show was created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. It is Daniels’, who has an impressive film career with such hits as Monster’s Ball, Precious and The Butler, debut with directing television. Strong, who is perhaps best known as Jonathan from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, writes the show. The series stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Empire is definitely not short on star-power when it comes to writing, directing, and acting.
It’s a bit unfair to compare primetime to daytime. The number of episodes that are produced and the budget sizes alone make it impossible for one to the mirror the other. However, as a soap fan and critic, I can’t help but do a little bit of comparing. Empire clearly is doing something right with some classic soap opera ingredients that seem to be missing from the daytime counter parts from which it has taken inspiration.
Strong Female Lead
Henson has gotten rave reviews and many new admirers with her portrayal of family matriarch and bad ass Cookie. Cookie is strong willed, defiant and the most important character on the show. Though she’s an ex-convict so filled with thoughts of revenge that she is willing to use her own children to get what she feels she’s owed, the audience can’t help but root for her. There is a vulnerability and loveliness to her underneath the wrath. We may not agree with everything she does but we understand her and it’s her actions that are the focus point for Empire’s fictional world.
Cookie is Ericia Kane, Victoria Lord, Marlena Evans, and Brooke Logan. She is the female center of a soapy fictional world who drives the story. Everything is connected to her. Unfortunately for daytime fans this archetype is on the endangered species list. If Empire was done using the standards currently set in daytime, Lucious (Howard) would be the solo lead and Anika (Grace Gealey) would be his big love interest, careful not to steal his thunder. Cookie would be supporting if lucky, more than likely recurring. Thankfully Empire knows better than to degrade itself with such silliness.
Lucious is a violent gangster who treats his family quite literally like garbage. Yet when I was discussing the show with one of my co-workers at the water cooler (no really, this actually happened) she said to me “There is something about Terrance Howard. I just can’t help but like him.”
Lucious is more than just a thug. The audience is able to feel sorry for him as he learns he has ALS and his sins weight heavy on him. The decision to find a successor has as much to do with taking care of his family as it does with preserving the brand he created. He may have seemingly traded Cookie for someone “prettier and younger” but it’s clear he never stopped loving Cookie despite the animosity that he shows her. It’s Lucious’ ability to feel regret that humanizes him.
There is a sense that Lucious is fully aware of his sins and his short-comings as a husband and as a father. When he threatens his son, he’s threatening his son out of his own selfishness and does not claim to be the good guy. He cares enough to pay for Jamal’s (Jussie Smollett) penthouse in order to keep up appearances and doesn’t try to pass this off as love.
Dysfunctional Core Family With Internal Conflict
Oldest son Andre (Trai Byers) is a smart business man who went to Wharton and married his college sweetheart. He also suffers from bipolar disorder. Jamal is the truly musically talented son but is the black sheep of the family due to his father’s homophobia. Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is a rising hip hop star but he’s self-absorbed and lacks his brother’s natural talent. Story is all told within this family and the conflicts that drive it are born from the characters’ personal struggles. This is true character-driven story telling. The real battles aren’t the ones fought with guns or outside forces. We get to see these characters struggle with who they are as they try to relate to one another.
Only two episodes of Empire have aired but this series has TVSource’s staff already hooked.