'Empire' Is 17 Million Americans' Favorite Greek Tragedy

The most popular and relevant show on TV is full of ripped-from-the-headlines plots, elaborate musical set pieces, eye-popping cameos, pop-culture tie-ins, and more melodrama than you can shake a stick at.

by Drew Millard
Sep 21 2015, 4:30pm

Screencap of 'Empire' via Fox

Wednesday night, Empire returns to televisions, Hulu accounts, and however else people watch TV shows these days. It is difficult to explain how popular this show is, other than to use plain numbers: Empire's season-one finale garnered over 17 million viewers. That's huge—for comparison, Mad Men's much-anticipated series finale only drew in 3.3 million. I've already had a sneak peak at Empire's second season, and I can confidently say that the show carries on the great traditions that it established in the first season. Season two will be full of bombast, ripped-from-the-headlines plots, elaborate musical set pieces, eye-popping cameos, pop-culture tie-ins, and more melodrama than you can shake a stick at. Millions of people will watch it, and regardless of why they tune in, they will be extremely happy.

When it debuted in January of this year, Empire became a full-blown pop culture phenomenon, accomplishing the rare feat of building its viewership week over week. After two episodes, the show was renewed for a second season, another rare feat.

Empire's first season was, well, a lot. It managed to touch on sex, lies, murder, secret love children, the Nation of Islam, drug addiction, cuckold fetishes, and an extended arc involving Courtney Love inexplicably playing a blue-eyed soul singer. Characters displayed a Glee-ish tendency to resolve personal drama by breaking out into song. If a bad decision could have possibly been made, you bet your ass a character was more than willing to make it and relish in the resulting fallout. It was pure, pulpy perfection wrapped in a hip-hop sheen.

Taraji P. Henson's Cookie is one of the most entertaining TV characters since The Fonz.

Empire starts off by introducing us to Lucious Lyon, played by Terrence Howard, the head of Empire Records, the biggest rap label in the known universe. He announces to his children—the hotheaded Hakeem, the introverted musical genius Jamal, and the scheming Andre—that he's got ALS and is going to die soon, but needs an heir to run the label once he takes it public. Just then, his wife Cookie, who's been in the slammer for years, gets released, and all biblical hell breaks loose. By the end of season one, more members of the family are murderers than not, everyone has made strategic alliances with each other and then gone back on them, and each character has become entangled in a web of deception so complex that even they themselves don't know what's true any more.

With popularity comes influence, and as Empire became a cultural juggernaut, it became less of a reflection of popular culture and more of an active projector of it. A lot of this had to do with its music—super-producer Timbaland served as the soundtrack's guiding hand, and though none of the songs from its soundtrack ended up becoming the anthemic hits that they were in the show, they sounded close enough to the real thing that it didn't matter. Star after star popped up throughout the show, which did the same neat trick that Entourage always did, where the cameos led to the suspension of the viewer's disbelief—it's easier to buy that Empire Records is the greatest label in all the land because hey, there's Snoop Dogg onstage, playing himself and performing his new single, talking about how great Lucious is.

Even though it's certainly a smart show made by very smart people, it's safe to say Empire's not shooting for minimalism here. Rather, it's of the Gossip Girl school of doing way too much, spinning artlessness into high art, and generally ricocheting between "self-aware hot mess" status and just plain old "hot mess" in the most enjoyable way possible. Terrence Howard's Lucious Lyon is a musical icon of Jay Z's status with the business savvy of Diddy and the ruthlessness of Cash Money impresario Birdman. But his wife Cookie, played with panache and flair by Taraji P. Henson, has a bit of Suge Knight's behind-the-scenes savvy in her: It was her drug money that funded Empire, her vision that crafted Lucious's signature sound, and it was her who took the fall when the heat came down on both of them. Youngest son Hakeem is a clear stand-in for Kid Ink or Tyga: a technically skilled if ultimately uninteresting also-ran who struggles to find his voice and sense of self underneath the trappings of wealth and the crushing weight of his Boosie Fade. Middle son Jamal has the pipes of Usher and the mystique of Frank Ocean, and his conflicted relationship with his own homosexuality closely mirrors the attitudes of hip-hop at large towards the subject. And though the bitter eldest son Andre's lack of musical talent makes him the clear black sheep of the family, his greed and Machiavellian business savvy suggests he's at least inherited something from his parents.

Where Gossip Girl essentially took the backstabbery and romantic mishaps of Shakespeare and applied it to wealthy Upper East Side teens, Empire draws liberally from MacBeth, King Lear, as well as Oedipus Rex. The three sons are driven by their desire to take Lucious's power and more or less possess Cookie. This is especially true for Hakeem, who pursues sexual relationships with older women and goes so far as to bed his father's fiancée Anika.

Like any great Greek tragedy, much of Empire's action has already occurred: Lucious and Cookie were an impoverished couple with big musical dreams, dealing drugs on the streets of Philadelphia just to get by. When the heat came down on them, Cookie took the fall so that Lucious could make it big. But in his rise to power, Lucious made more enemies than he could count, including pretty much everybody in his own family. He never visited Cookie in prison. He emotionally and physically abused Jamal, whose sexuality he couldn't quite comprehend. He more or less ignored Andre, who despite his intelligence and loyalty, can never quite do enough. Hakeem is his clear favorite, but the constant pressure to follow in his father's footsteps slowly destroys him from the inside.

As the company prepares to go public, Lucious's past sins return to haunt him, one by one. Still, what binds the Lyons might be their warped sense of loyalty to each other: Even when at their most selfish, everyone in the family has managed to conflate the interests of the family with their own. When you think your success trickles down to everyone around you, even betrayal becomes an act of love.

Screencap of 'Empire' via Fox

Part of why Empire works so well is Lucious's lingering creepiness and total amorality. Terrence Howard inhabits the character with such ease that it can't help but make you recall his recent Rolling Stone profile, in which the actor revealed himself to be as crazy as he is abjectly shitty. Amid his claims of having invented a new form of mathematics, he also shows he isn't really above any of Lucious's double- and triple-crossings. Luckily, there's way more to Empire than Howard, and by the beginning of the show's second season, he's effectively taken a backseat to Cookie and his kids, only periodically baring his teeth or committing some sort of unthinkable crime in order to advance the plot. Meanwhile, Taraji P. Henson's Cookie has quickly become one of the most entertaining TV characters since The Fonz. She's a chaotic neutral who irrevocably alters the air whenever she enters a room, and Henson manages to imbue her with an essential humanity that makes her feel real despite constantly referring to herself in the third person, rocking gowns that look like seeing-eye puzzles, and doing stuff like challenging a rapper to a drinking contest in order to keep him at the family's label.

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There's a certain balance you've got to maintain in a show's second season, between giving viewers more of what they want and not simply hitting the same beats over again. To his credit, Empire showrunner Lee Daniels seems to understand this, promising to Vanity Fair that in season two, "We show Cookie and Lucious's family and friends that are still in the ghetto, and their sense of loss to a community that they were once associated with."

Still, Daniels also knows what his show does best—he also told Vanity Fair, "There's fashion! Sex! Intrigue! Fights! Catfights with weave pulling and pearls dripping to the floor! Bloodshed! And more sex!" In a world where more is more, Empire is king.

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The second season of Empire premieres Wednesday night at 9 PM on Fox.