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Taraji P. Henson is the best actor on television right now, the ungodly synthesis of Grey’s razor-witted Miranda Bailey and It’s Always Sunny’s vulgar, bug-eyed font Sweet Dee; yet Henson’s performance is but a fraction of Empire’s success and improbable stature as the best show on television. To my amazement, the numbers don’t lie. In its first season run on FOX, Empire is the fastest growing TV show both in key demographics and overall, with nearly 15 million viewers as of last week's airing. (Tonight is the Season 1 finale.) Meanwhile, the Empire soundtrack just leapfrogged Madonna to top the Billboard 200 chart, which means that Terrence Howard is popping not only in network prime time, but also on radio and iTunes. I am just as confused as you are.
I’m not alone, I don’t think, in having initially suspected that Empire would be an under-budgeted melodrama that wouldn’t last a season. Empire airs on FOX, a network known for prematurely scrapping good shows to make room for series that are bad and bloated to begin with, just so those can get canceled, too. The CW has existed for less than a decade, and VH1 airs a single genre of popular television, pretty much, yet the those networks’ innovation of contemporary broadcast drama eclipses FOX’s legacy by a mile. With Empire, however, FOX has caught up to trendy, contemporary taste in a single bound. Where Love & Hip-Hop takes reality show personas and feeds them scripts, Empire presents a script driven by reality show personas. That latter reconfiguration of what we’re lately used to seeing on “black” television is #basic, perhaps, but it is modestly new, and exciting.
Fans love tweeting about this show, and every critic in town seems to relish re-capping and analyzing it week-by-week, scene-by-scene. As work of Black Television, specifically, Empire offers certain, obvious triumphs of representation given its reach. The show features a mostly black cast, including Henson and Terrence Howard, two esteemed actors who, the occasional sidekick role aside, had long been typecast as Black Actors in the tradition of Black Entertainment, e.g., Think Like a Man, Hustle & Flow, The Best Man, and such. Until now. BuzzFeed hosted a black writer’s roundtable to discuss Empire’s groundbreaking “portrayal of race, queerness, and women on television,” with writer Ira Madison III summarizing that Empire “is the first time we’ve gotten to see a glossy soap with black people in it (aside from the sorely missed Generations).”
I’m not sure why so many viewers—including the show’s proudest proponents—generally regard Empire as a soap opera, when it functions more like Aaron Sorkin’s defunct Newsroom: an ensemble of histrionic portrayals, quirky chaos, and a general anti-subtlety in depiction of a powerful industry’s social mechanics. What The Newsroom was to broadcast journalism, and The West Wing was to Washington politics, Lee Daniels’ Empire is to the U.S. recording industry. I’d contrast all these dramas with a true soap like, say, General Hospital, which is a show titled General Hospital, is staged in a hospital, and has aired since 1963, yet has nothing interesting to say about hospitals or health care. Empire, in contrast, is quite obviously interested in its real-world bearing on, and reflection of, the U.S. recording industry. Unlike a soap opera, where drama is self-contained within individual narratives, Empire is more like a true melodrama, using over-the-top tropes to refer to something that exists in the world—the music industry.
Lee Daniel's Empire, Shonda Rhimes' Scandal, and Kenya Barris' Black-ish mark the end, perhaps, of critics' chronicling Black Television as an also-run subgenre that isn't built to compete with the Aaron Sorkins and Judd Apatows of this world. And Empire does this in part because it is not, despite what many may think, a soap opera. In the sense that Grey’s Anatomy is a “proper” TV drama in its blending lustiness with realistic and adventurous storytelling, Empire is the most engrossing industry drama since Grey’s debut in 2005. (If only the second season of Orange Is The New Black weren’t such a fucking backwash.) Lucious Lyon is a ridiculous executive, Hakeem is a ridiculous musician, and Empire is all you could ever want from a dramatization of an industry that’s as gaudy, goofy, blessed, and stressful as depicted. Like so many rap labels that actually exist, Empire Records is an amazing catastrophe of bad taste. I stand by it.