Drama, interest builds for 'Empire' season finale

Mekeisha Madden Toby
Special to The Detroit News

If you call Ashara Giles Jones between 9 and 10 p.m. Wednesday nights, she's not answering the phone.

That's the day and time "Empire" airs on Fox and, as a diehard fan of the hip-hop-centric soap, the Detroiter and her husband haven't missed one installment. The two-hour season-one finale airs Wednesday.

"I am completely enthralled," said Giles Jones, who also tweets about "Empire" while watching.

"This is the most exciting prime-time soap opera since 'Dynasty' and 'Dallas,' if you ask me. The writing is impeccable and filled with all the right ingredients needed for a hit soap, from catty one-liners to shocking plot twists. I'm also impressed with the topics (executive producer) Lee Daniels has tackled that are often considered taboo in black families, like mental illness and homosexuality."

Giles is not alone in her obsession. Since "Empire" debuted in January to 9.9 million viewers, the drama's audience has expanded substantially every week, according to Nielsen. The show's 10th episode, which aired last week, drew 14.7 million viewers. About 65 percent of the viewers are African-American.

"Empire" also is a huge Twitter hit with an average 451,270 tweets per episode, making it the No. 1 tweeted show, ahead of "The Walking Dead" (444,029) and "Scandal" (354,085). Despite positive buzz and public interest, some academics have criticized "Empire" for what they call racially pejorative portrayals.

Love, hate, loss colorless

Created and executive produced by Daniels ("Precious" and "The Butler") and Danny Strong ("Game Change"), "Empire" is a reimagining of Shakespeare's "King Lear" and James Goldman's "The Lion in Winter" with a heavy infusion of "Dynasty," the Eddie Murphy movie "Boomerang," and a bit of humor, the two said.

The drama centers around hip-hop mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) who is dying of ALS and has to decide which of his three sons he will leave his record company. Making matters more complicated, Lucious' ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) stirs up trouble when she is released from prison after serving 17 years for selling drugs, the proceeds of which helped create Empire records.

"It's a throwback to Norman Lear's work," said Daniels during the series' Emmy panel last week in Hollywood. "Through humor, we are able to feel the pain. So often, we do that with the wink of an eye."

As fans can attest, no one delivers that humorous wink better than Henson.

"When I got the script, I knew it was something special," Henson said during the Emmy panel, where it was revealed that she coined one of the show's most popular nicknames "Boo Boo Kitty."

"I knew that if it were handled with care, it could change the game and that's what you're witnessing," Henson said. "Love and hate and loss have no color."

This rags-to-riches power struggle set to catchy music produced and composed by Timbaland is one of the draws, as are the Oscar-nominated actors who helm the show — Henson and Howard — and the predominately African-American cast who support them.

"Those deeply rooted in hip-hop culture have grown up with Taraji from her beginnings in the movie 'Baby Boy,' " said Dr. Earl Wright II, a sociology Ph.D and sociology professor at the University of Cincinnati. "The presentation of self that she presents on social media and in public appearances is relatable to the masses. So, when she packages all of that energy and talent into a character, most of the time we fall in love with her portrayal."

"Empire" also harkens back to the more-is-more greed culture celebrated in 1980s nighttime soaps, experts say.

" 'Empire' does a great job of integrating some of the most effective elements of a classic TV genre with a high-energy, edgy, funny, sexy, and very well-written look inside the world of the hip-hop music industry," said Barna Donovan, a three-time author and an associate communications professor at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, New Jersey.

"Just like the Ewings of 'Dallas' or the Carringtons of 'Dynasty' fought for control over oil companies, 'Empire's' Lucious Lyon and his family are maneuvering and manipulating each other for control of a major music company."

Series isn't universally loved

With success comes controversy and some cultural critics have bashed "Empire" for perpetuating negative stereotypes about black people.

"('Empire') is selling an image of blackness to a white audience that has been long fed stereotypical messages about what blackness represents," said Dr. Boyce Watkins in a blog post bashing the series. Watkins has a Ph.D in finance and is the author of "Black American Money: How Black Power Can Thrive in a Capitalist Society."

"These thug-gangster-hoodrat images are the ones that are deeply embedded in the minds of police officers who shoot black men and potential employers who refuse to give black people jobs," Watkins continued. "Just like animals in the zoo, the world loves to observe black people at our most ratchet, because ignorant Negroes are simply fun to watch."

Anthony Lamarr is producing the upcoming Punch TV reality show "Vinyl Wars," which focuses on music promoters and will be set in Detroit. He also authored the book "The Pages We Forget," a novel about a superstar singer, also set in the city. He said although he sees Watkins's point, most viewers are sophisticated enough to understand "Empire" is a soap opera.

"The show seems to push the idea that you can take an African-American out the hood, but you can't take the hood out the African-American," Lamarr said. "However, I think the show's tone and narrative are so exaggerated that more astute viewers see the show as a conceptualized high drama instead of a real-life depiction."

Viewers like Detroiter Lamont Corbin, a father of two, said he finds himself defending "Empire" against friends who are detractors.

"It's TV. I wish black people would be this critical of shows with a majority white cast," Corbin said.

"As long as I have a black family in the White House for real, I don't care."

Mekeisha Madden Toby is a Los Angeles-based TV critic.


Season 1 finale

8-10 p.m. Wednesday