‘Empire’ changed the industry. Coronavirus interrupted its grand finale
When “Empire” premiered in January 2015, the Taraji P. Henson- and Terrence Howard-led drama made waves. With its “King Lear”-inspired story line set in the world of hip-hop, the Fox series had massive social media buzz and high ratings to match, scoring at least nine straight weeks of ratings growth: the type of debut networks and creators dream of.
Five years later, as “Empire’s” sixth and final season was to come to a close Tuesday, the enduring impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has compromised its bow – an unceremonious end for a show that quite literally helped change the landscape of television.
“We were in the middle of shooting and then all of the sudden it was just like, ‘Nope, uh-uh,’” showrunner Brett Mahoney said recently in a phone interview. “I mean, we didn’t even finish the day. It was just like, ‘No, go home because we’ve got to be concerned about health and safety,’ which is real.”
Henson added: “We got it, but then it was like, ‘OK, when are we coming back? When are we going to finish?’”
Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, “Empire” follows the Lyons, hip-hop’s first family. There’s Lucious (Howard), a former gangster rapper turned music mogul; Cookie (Henson), his ride-or-die ex-wife, who served 17 years in prison to protect her family; and their three sons, Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), who battle it out to inherit the Empire Records throne. With its mix of high drama – of the camp variety – flashy musical numbers and sociopolitically inspired story lines, the show was the fastest-growing new drama on television since Fox’s medical hit “House” 10 years prior. And it helped that everyone from Patti LaBelle and Mariah Carey to Don Lemon and Andre Leon Talley made cameos.
“It came along at one of those periods in American TV drama where black actresses in particular were getting star turns in the hour-long format, thanks to Shonda Rhimes’ ‘Scandal’ and ‘How to Get Away With Murder,’” said Stephane Dunn, director of Morehouse College’s Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies program. “It was an expansion of this sort of rarity and, to me, the embodiment of hip-hop’s cultural and global influence, as was (Starz’s) ‘Power.’ The way ‘Empire’ most dramatically marked a rather radical entry was in delving into and exploring the homophobia of the culture as well as the taboo topic of mental illness.”
That “interesting and imperfect mix of competing radical and conservative viewpoints,” as Dunn described it, is exactly what forced critics, the industry and audiences to take notice of this all-black show – not to mention radio and club-worthy tracks initially produced by music heavy-hitters Timbaland and Jim Beanz.
On reflection, “Empire’s” unapologetic approach to storytelling is what Henson most enjoyed about playing its female lead, who brought all the urban glitz and edge of iconic 1970s black films to its modern rags-to-riches story.
“We were bold in our storytelling,” she said. “We came through kicking down doors. There was no topic that we would not take on, head-on, and they had the damn right cast to do it! That’s what helped shift the paradigm of writing (in the industry) and things that are getting greenlit now – and the fact that a black cast did it and it was successful globally.”
Initially, the show wasn’t set to premiere internationally. That is, until fans began downloading “Empire” illegally online, prompting the network into action, Henson remembered.
Showrunner Mahoney (“CSI: Miami”) joined the “Empire” team in Season 4, after ratings had dipped – as they do after such a massive debut. But the show still had a devoted fan base that hung onto every action of the Lyons and, to an extent, saw themselves reflected there. Mahoney said the biggest challenge at that point was “just living up to what ‘Empire’ was because it was so big and had been so successful.”
“It had also told so many stories, so it was (figuring out) what were the new stories we were going to tell that would have an impact and that the audience would respond to,” he continued. “What are the stories we could tell that would hit the culture and depict the culture but then also sort of maybe inform the culture.”
That meant, for example, staging the first black gay wedding on prime-time television between Smollett’s Jamal and his partner near the end of Season 5 – Smollett’s last after he was written off the show following allegations that he staged an attack on himself earlier that year – and revisiting the topic of mental health in the black community by putting Cookie in therapy.
For the show’s last season, the task at hand for Mahoney and the writers was to give fans a satisfying series finale and honor the titan “Empire” has been. But the spread of COVID-19 soured those plans: Production ended abruptly in the middle of shooting what would have been Episode 19 of 20, making Episode 18 the series finale.
“What our intent was (to end the show) has been turned upside down,” he admitted. “But there was a beat of that in the materials we had shot (from Episode 19), so I just cobbled something together that got me there.”
Longtime “Empire” fans like Janelle Gary, a 36-year-old former email marketing specialist who lives in the Columbus, Ohio, area, already aren’t happy. She first tuned into the show near the end of its record-breaking first season and has been waiting with bated breath for its finale.
“I’m slightly annoyed because I know there were supposed to be additional episodes that didn’t get filmed because of the virus, and I know that means the story lines are going to be incomplete,” she said. “As a viewer, it’s going to feel like I’m not getting the closure I really want concerning the Lyons.”
To that end, Mahoney says the team hasn’t given up on the idea that they might still be able to film the intended finale once the pandemic is under control.
“And if we can’t, then we’ll find some creative way to hopefully at least give the fans that type of closure, and also give everyone that’s working on it the type of closure that we wanted,” he said. “Maybe it’s a Zoom table read, or maybe we just release the script. But we really would like to finish the show.”
“No, we want to shoot that baby,” Henson interrupted. “(Fans) want to see Cookie in her fur, honey. They don’t want to watch me read that looking crazy. We need to give people what they deserve because they have been loyal fans, and it just wouldn’t be right.”
Gary made her wishes clear. “I absolutely would want those final two episodes at a later date,” she said. “And if they’re able to bring back Jussie Smollett for the final episode, I would truly appreciate that, even if only a brief appearance.”
9 p.m. on Fox