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Kingdom Came: Notes on ‘Empire’ and the State of Black Television Drama

The sensational ‘Empire’ and the landscape of black television.

It’s not quite true that I’ve never seen anything like Empire. The centuries are plump with art and popular culture driven by tales of crime and power. Even on network television, not too long ago, there were lurid stories set within the music industry brought to us, in part, by the man who made The Godfather. But I’ve never seen anything that gets away with everything Empire gets away with murder, basically. I’ve never seen anything on network television this shameless; this overwritten yet perfectly plotted; this ludicrously costumed, art-decorated, choreographed, soundtracked, acted, and directed; this hormonal, this … black. Believe me, at the moment, that’s an achievement against some competition: Tyler Perry’s The Haves and the Have Nots on the Oprah Winfrey Network; BET’s Being Mary Jane and The Game; Single Ladies on VH1; and, arguably, ABC’s Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. Empire is different.

The show is a soap saga about a thriving record company: Empire records! It’s under siege from the inside and out. Its founder and CEO, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), was a thug who rose from the streets of Philadelphia to the top of the charts, then to the top of a skyscraper. Howard — like the show — operates within some alternate prefab universe of lubricious glamour and lugubrious plotting: It’s Aaron Spelling’s The Godfather. Lucious is newly diagnosed with ALS. He’s also engaged to Empire’s head of A&R, a haughty biracial Swedish speaker named Anika (Grace Gealey). His ascent has come at the expense of his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), who took the rap for Lucious on a drug-dealing charge and served 17 years in prison. She’s just been released, wants to better know her three adult sons, and demands a share in a business she helped create. The sons — bipolar Empire CFO Andre (Trai Byers), gay singer-songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett), hotheaded horndog rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) — resent Cookie, until they come to resent Lucious. But no child’s parental loyalty lasts. The tide turning among them can induce seasickness.

In the first episode, Lucious, aware that’s he’s dying, explains his intentions. Upon his death, one of the sons stands to inherit stewardship of the label as it goes public. Jamal hears this plan, has a gander at the competition, and smells Shakespeare. “What is this? King Lear?” Abstractly, yes. But, even after a single episode, the allusion felt a little off. Lear is a stormy old megalomaniac. He’s irrational and petulant and possibly demented. When his youngest daughter, Cordelia, articulates ambivalence about her love for him — after her two sisters have feigned unconditional adoration — he explodes with insult. In Lear, absolute power faces its natural twilight, and its heirs connive for the benefits. Empire seems aware of that lineage, and with Lucious conniving for his sons’ love, it’s Lear in reverse. It’s also a department store of Shakespearean moral dilemmas and their consequences. Floor 1: Hamlet. Floor 2: Romeo and Juliet. Floor 3: Macbeth. The penthouse restaurant? Good evening, and welcome to Othello.

The show situates these timeless themes of lust, ambition, and corruption in a rich, richly paranoid fantasy world populated by a range of black faces and personalities and backgrounds. Some of the fantasy really does involve having the street sense, money, and good screenwriting to afford to get away with murder. (More than half of the main cast contemplates killing someone or actually does, on purpose or by accident.) Empire doesn’t just portray a world of privilege. It’s about what privilege means once you’re inside that world. It’s self-conscious without being excessively neurotic, nuts without being exactly psychological. It’s resoundingly, flamboyantly black without being about blackness. Here, black simply is.

This is what separates Empire from most of its black-melodrama peers. It’s the first one that doesn’t feel ghettoized or defensively assembled. The money is new but seems old on the Lyons — even for Cookie, who accustomed herself to lavishness without ever splurging or spreeing. The show celebrates particular flavors of blackness even as it paints each one a single emotional color: brash. It’s also a cooking show: The key to all the comedy and drama is the easy, fantastical commingling of all of those flavors of brashness. Aspirations here have already been achieved. What you see, largely, are its spoils.

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Television had previously hinted at something like Empire. As a boy, I watched ABC’s Dynasty for Diahann Carroll the way some people eat trail mix for the raisins. She played the shocking black addition to the white Carrington-Colby galaxy. Like Lucious, she was a concoction. (“Dominique Deveraux” was her nom de classy white people.) Like Lucious, she also had in her a bit of Milton’s charismatic, accursed Lucifer. She, too, ran a successful record label — from Denver. But Dynasty kept Dominique on a figurative island in its chic Colorado climes. As black people went, she was pretty much the only game in town, so the show kept backing her into interracial hot water. Would she ever admit, for instance, that Garrett is really the father of Dominique’s daughter, Jackie?

Most of America understandably watched for Joan Collins’s superbitch, Alexis. Everyone at my house wanted to see Dominique, in part because she was a fancy black lady who didn’t apologize for her fabulousness, and in part because that lady was played by Carroll, who eyebrow-raised her way through the show. (During the climax of one unforgettable, ecstatically advertised night of television, Alexis and Dominique proceeded to brawl their way around a mansion.) I could never get enough of Dominique because there was not actually enough of her to get. We watched Dynasty because in the 1980s there were scarcely any other even semi-serious black people on television’s three networks. But Dominique pointed a way forward for extravagant black soapiness, much as the less glamorous Angie-and-Jesse romance plots did on ABC’s All My Children. 

Other mostly black soaps came — well, one: NBC’s stillborn Generations. But prime time was a desert. Middle-class and upper-middle-class blacks lived on sitcoms: Huxtables and Bankses and Winslows. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the richest treatments of black drama came by way of comedic satire. Robert Townsend imagined a black soap-opera universe with “The Bold, the Black, the Beautiful,” sketches that ran on his HBO variety showPartners in Crime. The sketches followed Townsend’s Lake Arrington, a soul food magnate; Lake’s wife, Chandelier; and their many exploits with tramps, gigolo congressmen, and rival food purveyors. The whole thing now feels like a coming attraction for both the entirety of Tyler Perry and the spate of black dramas currently on television.

What wins Empire the gold for both uniqueness and a kind of greatishness is that its struggles are not ones of race and class, of respectability and propriety, of how to be bourgie in the conference-room seats and ghetto between the sheets (for the record: No one properly uses sheets on this show). With Empire, struggles are absorbed into the world of the show and neutralized. Political upheavals are in the past. The show operates at an almost paradisiacal remove from capital-C concerns. Poverty, murder, anti-gay prejudice, sexism, snitches, bitches, and feds all exist. So do biracial gay Australian photographers, Latin men, and characters played by Naomi Campbell and Courtney Love. But the show is pitched at canted angles of normalcy. And that struggle-free normalcy creates the luxury you want from soap operas.

Everything about Empire is luxurious — not only the apparently infinite affluence, but also its ability to throw the high and the low, the tasteful and the obscene, into a Cuisinart and pulse away. Only in the final episode does a touch of racial strategy figure into anything. The Lyon boys, having learned which of them will run their father’s label, debate Lucious’s decision. An heir, they say, will make it hard for an outside party to take over or for white shareholders to back out. In the same episode, Patti LaBelle announces that some of the proceeds from Empire’s big melisma jamboree will go to #BlackLivesMatter — but only 10 percent, and the gesture is presented as an afterthought, befitting certain hashtag activism.

Empire’s innovation is the way it installs its assemblage of stereotypes — sassiness, thuggishness, ghetto-ness, bourgie snobbery — inside an unassailable, high-class, high-gloss world. The Lyon boys were reared as rich kids. They’re all spoiled in different ways. But the show presents its spoiled black children in a fresh vernacular. They’re the pampered young adults from Frank Ocean’s songs “Sweet Life” and “Super Rich Kids.” They see the streets from Town Cars and penthouses, and yet they’re kept “real.” Hakeem’s smooth, gangster braggadocio begins as a fraud, then turns into luxury-brand disses and navel-gazing. Empire doesn’t turn Andre, with his Wharton education and pretty white wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), into a running gag of over-assimilation. It doesn’t make him into Carlton Banks, a mis-mocked caricature of black success that equates wealth and education with having sold out. Andre has demons and shaky mental health, but none of that is predicated upon being not black enough.

Stereotypical whiteness, which on this show also means being born well-to-do, remains grist for throwaway putdowns. Anika appears fluent in both black and white European worlds and might be the second snakiest, most laughable person on the show. And at some point, one of the sons asks Lucious’s cheery, dark-skinned, platinum-blonde executive assistant, Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), about her name. My mom is white, she basically says. Who knows if she’s kidding?

But the world of Empire distrusts easy assimilation. Lucious, with his light skin and glittering eyes, is a hero, a villain, and an enigma. The show deftly conjures an atmosphere of bratty ignorance, artistic sophistication, and racial suspicion. After all, it’s Rhonda who has to assert how hard she’s worked to get what’s she got. It’s her husband and brothers-in-law who’ve had everything handed to them. They’re loosely equated with a white rapper who’s the grandson of the potential shareholder in — never mind. What matters is that his richness and whiteness give him access to the Lyons’ creative juices. The show doesn’t have to laugh at these ideas and characters. There’s a way in which the campiness is its own force of self-mockery. Twitter reactions are baked into the ideology.

Empire’s ideas about race operate at a higher degree of difficulty than even Scandal, one of the most sexually and racially adventurous shows ever to appear on television. Like Scandal, Empire brings a crazed racial odyssey to a major network. Unlike Scandal, it’s not situated in a world of delicately maintained façades. Washington politics requires a kind of politesse, a brand that the show’s architect, Shonda Rhimes, has polished to perfection. Empire has no reliable sense of decorum. This is a world in which people peep and creep, but mostly they barge into rooms and blast the truth with an alacrity that would appall Scandal’s heroine, Olivia Pope. Secrets are a form of currency on Scandal. They’re a cancer on Empire. And bluntness appears to be a form of chemotherapy.

If Cookie and Olivia switched cities, it’d make for fascinating, funny television, but neither world could remain intact for long. Cookie would expose a whole city’s skeletons and be immediately out of a job. Olivia would provide withering scrutiny of the record label’s business plan, then disinfect all the tabletops, desktops, and backseats. That such a hypothetical, fan-fiction switch would fail indicates the diversity of blackness currently on dramatic television. There’s a relative wealth where 30 years ago there was only impoverishment.

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Cookie’s big mouth and Henson’s paint-bomb acting steal the show. But Lucious is the real piece of work. Over the course of the 12 episodes, he behaves in appalling ways: He kills Cookie’s cousin. In a flashback, he catches young Jamal sashaying in heels and stuffs him into a garbage can. He cheats on Anika with Cookie, then tells Cookie he’s leaving Anika, but doesn’t tell Cookie he’s changed his mind until Cookie arrives, in a bustier, at the dinner where Lucious and Anika announce their engagement. He refers to one of his artist’s girlfriend as a “thot.” He berates nurses and employees and his own sons, all while suffering tremors, cold sweats, and one of those talking-in-your-sleep jags that another character is shocked to overhear. He calls Rhonda all kinds of “white bitch,” and he turns out to be the father of the gay son’s surprise daughter.

To watch a nutty narcissist like Lucious in television’s current landscape — whose final shot puts him, for the moment, behind bars — is to be able to place him alongside Robert Durst of The Jinx and any of the other evil, so-called antiheroes who’ve been hogging the plots on series television for years. This is remarkable only in the sense that Lucious is a black male who behaves with what a district attorney might call impunity. He’s unfazed by his crimes and by Cookie’s seething return. I don’t know how long a show this over-the-top can continue to clear the bar. I don’t know that the writing will ever culminate in a role for Howard as good as James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano, Jon Hamm’s Don Draper, Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, or Clive Owen’s John Thackery. But Lucious Lyon has more in common with them than with the men you’re also inclined to think about as you watch Empire: Wesley Snipes in New Jack City, say, or Denzel Washington in Training Day, or Howard himself in Hustle & Flow. There’s a cool about Lucious that explains his magnetism. The last TV character as blithely contemptible and contemptuous as Lucious was 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy. It’s an amazing irony: In being unapologetic for its blackness, Empire enters unsavory territory typically reserved for white male characters and often played as comedy.

On Scandal, blackness functions as an exhilarating third rail. On Empire, it’s the entire power source. Race trips up many a work of popular culture. You can feel the second half of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s pretty wonderful Netflix show, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, trying to untangle the messes it makes in the first half. Most American television is white television. Whatever else that means, it suggests that most of the characters and writing are focused on stories in which no one of color is even near the center of the action. Sometimes those stories actually unfold at the expense of characters of color. Occasionally, that awareness of what often gets called privilege becomes part of a show’s sense of self, as it has on FX’s Louie.

For four years, Lena Dunham’s Girls has been unfairly under fire for training its focus on young white women. To me, that never felt like a problem of Dunham’s making. She’s a beneficiary of a system that values women like her. The fault lies, in her case, with HBO, which remains an unchallenged bastion of whiteness across time and realities. Nonetheless, the charge of privilege stuck to her and the show, and by its jumpy second season, it seemed to sting. But Girls just completed a smart, strong, mature fourth season in which it became a comedy about privilege and its discontents. The show doubled down on the traits that outraged its critics, but its creators are now seasoned enough to understand how to treat cluelessness, entitlement, and ignorance as sport. Dunham shifted the burden away from the show and onto the culture in a way that felt new.

An argument against Girls is that it’s another show by, about, and perhaps for white people. You can feel it justifying its right to continue to exist. There’s less of a cultural burden with Empire. What, really, has come before it? So much of its properties involve conflating and remixing the familiar that it feels fresh.

And it’s true: Compared to the general TV landscape, there’s not a lot that looks like Empire. So it’s possible to know the math and give its loudness and venality a pass. Some black people I know refuse to watch the show. They think it makes fools of black people. That seems fair. But what’s happening among these characters in this particularized world is more complex. 

Anyway, there are lots of fools on television. It’s only once there’s a critical mass of different types of black and brown people that their crass and inane depiction ceases to represent a race or a condition and begins to feel like one of any number of options. I think audiences can sense that. The ratings for Empire started strong and got stronger every week. Most of that viewership was black. It’s a show that, unlike Scandal, feels free to speak directly to all black audiences. It doesn’t care for propriety. It doesn’t care that you don’t know what a “thot” is.

The show is a partial creation of Lee Daniels, the director of such way-out-there works of delirium and flagrancy as Shadowboxer, Precious, The Paperboy, and The Butler. Daniels is a showman director who cares not for the politics of respectability. It makes him an offensive, dangerous talent, but it also makes his art daring, necessary, fun, and refreshingly vulgar. That dangerousness and vulgarity light up this show. It is black, bold, and beautiful — stupid, too. That would be an insult to almost any other work of drama. With Empire, it feels like a major point of pride.