SUBMISSION – Returning to the ‘Empire’: TV’s Biggest Hit goes even (more) political

SUBMITTED BY DAVID CANFIELD

In her victory speech at last week’s Emmy Awards, Best Actress (Drama) champ

Viola Davis made a powerful assertion.

“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity,”

the “How to Get Away with Murder” star said.

Davis’ statement encompassed a night of landmark victories for people of color;

four of the 16 acting winners this year were black, while the Television Academy

also nominated a record number of non-white performers.

Television, like any form of media, has a long way to go in terms of representation.

But the diversity on display at the Emmys ceremony this year was irrefutable.

Years of reductively discussing “trends” and “breakthroughs” seemed to finally

yield a tangible, meaningful outcome. Unlike the Oscars – in which for the 2015

awards, all 20 nominated actors were white – the Emmys, or perhaps television

series in general, made actual strides.

Davis’ race for Best Actress was a close one: she barely came out ahead of Taraji

P. Henson, the breakout “Empire” actress and originator of the instantly-iconic

Cookie Lyon. But Henson, who won the equivalent Critics’ Choice Television

Award in June, was hardly bitter about her loss. She told Ellen DeGeneres the next

day, “I think the world needed to hear what [Davis] had to say last night.”

The world is definitely hearing Henson out, though, on “Empire” – and more

specifically, on what she and her cast members have to say about “opportunity.”

The second season premiere of the primetime phenomenon – which aired

Wednesday, Sept. 22 – attracted 16 million viewers, an extraordinary number

considering today’s streaming and on-demand economy. And crucially, that

massive audience isn’t merely tuning in for mindless network TV.

Under the stewardship of Oscar nominee Lee Daniels – who is gay and black, and

whose film work is notorious for its grimy authenticity – “Empire” confronts and

conflates race, sexuality and class with bold excessiveness. The series, which

features a majority non-white cast and is set in the music world, meshes “King

Lear” with “Dynasty.” In the pilot episode, hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence

Howard) learns he is dying, and is tasked with deciding which of his three sons are

to inherit his record company and continue his legacy. Rather than decide in

private, he apprises them of the competition – all while their infectiously quotable

mother, Cookie (Henson), returns from her decades-long stint in prison. Let the

soapy family hijinks ensue.

The first season of “Empire” careens through plots with deranged intensity, but the

show’s themes remain potent. One son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), emerges as the

natural heir – but Lucious rejects his son at every turn, in bitter disapproval of the

fact that he is gay. The eldest, Andre (Trai Bryers), meanwhile, contends with

bipolar disorder, while Hakeem (Bryshere Grey), the youngest, struggles with a

severe maternal complex.

Given that “Empire” airs on a broadcast network, its decision to so voraciously

delve into issues of mental illness and homophobia could be constituted a major

risk. Fox, like ABC or CBS, is commercially dictated by advertising dollars and

strict Standards and Practices. But rather than hold back, Daniels has embraced the

challenge: he exposes the role of homophobia in the black community with

piercing ugliness, and confronts the notion of class with surprising nuance.

Daniels’ catty dialogue and aggressive plotting brings in viewers; his politicized

take on the nighttime soap opera translates that commercial success into something

far more impactful. As it stands, “Empire” is the most popular show on the small-

screen. It also features popular art’s most expansive, varied and complex

assortment of characters of color, situating them in situations of (deliciously)

heightened reality with thorough dramatic honesty. The series, at times, is in dire

need of subtlety – many lines of dialogue, not to mention some music cues, require

an eye-roll or two – but Daniels’ overt methods also work to his advantage.

“Empire,” with its second run just kicking off, is having a moment. It’s going

bigger. The season premiere opens on a massive Central Park concert, in which

hundreds of thousands of people have come together to protest the incarceration of

Lucious. (He killed someone – you know, standard “Empire” stuff.) The situation

might veer on absurd if the show didn’t so swiftly pivot toward real-world issues.

Once they grace the stage, Hakeem and Jamal capture our epidemic of mass

incarceration with a poetic string of lyrics, while Cookie leads a chant pleading for

the world to hear their anger.

Daniels subsequently tilts the camera upward. We see a gorilla banging around in a

cage, the scene evoking “King Kong.” The metaphor is palpable, the statement

effectively inspired.

Then, the “gorilla” takes off its mask – it’s revealed to be Cookie, boasting a

serious smirk as she uncovers her face. By conveying its excess with a knowing

wink, “Empire” enforces a textured contention with its content. Within the soapy

melodrama is a political immediacy that demands attention.

Tens of millions of people watched Cookie – their nasty, vengeful but beloved

hero – take off that mask right in their living rooms, likely tweeting with hashtag-

OMG intensity in response. Here was the worldwide transmission of a sobering

political message, told within an aesthetic of fun, over-the-top camp.

Or, in other words, an opportunity seized, “Empire”-style

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