Hip-hop show’s creators did their own thing, giv­ing Fox a ma­jor hit

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - By Sam Adams

Be­yond the ex­pec­ta­tions

With an au­di­ence of nearly 22 mil­lion for its March fi­nale, Fox’s “Em­pire” is a crea­ture so rare that some thought it ex­tinct: a bona fide net­work TV hit. But the show, which took cen­ter stage at Fox’s pre­sen­ta­tion of its fall sea­son to ad­ver­tis­ers last month, came to that old-fash­ioned suc­cess in a very new­fan­gled way, ef­fec­tively com­bin­ing ca­ble in­no­va­tion with broad­cast mus­cle.

When co-creators Danny Strong and Lee Daniels were pitch­ing the show in 2013, Strong re­calls, “net­work tele­vi­sion was get­ting ham­mered by ca­ble.” Even with ABC’s “Scan­dal,” one of the bright­est spots in a dim fir­ma­ment demon­strat­ing the power of com­bin­ing a mul­tira­cial cast with twist-driven sto­ry­telling, a sprawl­ing soap opera about a hip-hop mogul’s strug­gle to select an heir — es­pe­cially one shot in Daniels’ char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally op­er­atic style — might have been a tough sell. Even so, Strong says, “Lee and I were just go­ing to do our thing. We were never wor­ried about fit­ting into any box or model.”

“I didn’t think Fox would ever pick it up,” ad­mits Taraji P. Hen­son, whose per­for­mance as smack-talk­ing jail­bird Cookie Lyon has made her the show’s break­out star — the face that launched a thou­sand GIFs. “I thought, ‘This is an amaz­ing script. It’s prob­a­bly go­ing to end up on ca­ble.’ We’ll put this in­cred­i­ble pi­lot in the can, and then Fox will choke. When they de­cided to put it on, it was like, ‘ OK, this is go­ing to change the game.’ Then it was just wait­ing for the num­bers.”

The num­bers, when they came, were im­pres­sive: Nearly 10 mil­lion for “Em­pire’s” Jan­uary pre­miere. Rat­ings grew the fol­low­ing week, and the week af­ter that, and the week af­ter that, un­til Nielsen ran out of shows to com­pare it to. They’d quite lit­er­ally never seen any­thing like it.

Given “Em­pire’s” largely African Amer­i­can cast and its melo­dra­matic roots, it’s not sur­pris­ing that a good chunk of that au­di­ence was fe­male and non­white, view­ers not al­ways well served by the pre­mium-ca­ble shows that have driven TV’s new­est golden age. “They got the show ‘black-ish’?” Hen­son says, “We’re ‘Blackis.’ ”

But “Em­pire” is too big for any gen­er­al­iza­tion about its au­di­ence to hold for long. Pro­ducer Brian Grazer re­calls at­tend­ing a din­ner party thrown by Google’s Eric Sch­midt where “Em­pire’s” sound­track found its way onto the stereo. “One guy was the un­der­sec­re­tary to the Mid­dle East,” he says, “one girl was cur­ing cancer, and they were all to­tally groov­ing on this al­bum.”

“It touches so many of the peo­ple I in­tended it to touch,” says Daniels, whose re­la­tion­ship with his late fa­ther in­spired the scene in the pi­lot in which Ter­rence Howard’s Lu­cious drops his gay son in a garbage can. “I go out in the street and I talk to peo­ple whose lives these re­ally are, and I hear how deeply it res­onates.” But he also found fans in line at a Broad­way play, where he was the only black per­son in sight. “I asked them, ‘Why do you like the show?’ and they said, ‘It’s about power.’ What I saw as per­sonal is re­ally quite univer­sal.”

As Strong and Daniels talk with Grazer and show run­ner Ilene Chaiken, words like “alchemy” and “magic” fly fre­quently; Hen­son calls the se­ries “the per­fect storm.” But whether view­ers no­tice or not, there are con­crete rea­sons why “Em­pire” doesn’t feel like any other show on the air. Rather than call on TV’s usual sus­pects, the se­ries has made a de­lib­er­ate ef­fort to di­ver­sify its staff. The only straight white man to di­rect an episode in “Em­pire’s” first sea­son was Strong, and, he joked, “I had to cre­ate the show to get the job.”

In fact, Chaiken said, it was Strong who told her when she came on­board that the

‘I go out in the street and I talk to peo­ple whose lives these re­ally are, and I hear how deeply it res­onates.’ — LEE DANIELS

show wanted to use a good num­ber of fe­male di­rec­tors, which, she ad­mit­ted, “is re­ally, re­ally hard to do in tele­vi­sion. Es­pe­cially when you’re cre­at­ing so much prod­uct, it’s re­ally easy to fall into hir­ing the same bunch of white guys over and over again. But the show wouldn’t be the show.”

Strong “re­jects 100%” the idea that writ­ers should hail from the same back­ground as their char­ac­ters — that, for ex­am­ple, there’s any­thing wrong with a white man cre­at­ing a show about an African Amer­i­can hip-hop dy­nasty — but Daniels de­murs, in a way that sug­gests they’ve had this ar­gu­ment many times be­fore. “I agree with him, be­cause he’s so good at telling this story,” Daniels says. “But I also think that the ex­e­cu­tion of it has to come from a per­son who has that ex­pe­ri­ence. I ain’t ever” — and here he names a sex­ual act that gay men like him­self are un­likely to per­form — “so I can’t write about that, ever. You have to know that for me to tell an ac­tor, ‘This is what I want you to feel.’ ”

Daniels and Strong say their ex­pe­ri­ence with Fox has been pos­i­tive, although Daniels does re­call Strong tex­ting him, “Shut up and just take the note” when a con­fer­ence call threat­ened to turn con­tentious. But Hen­son and Howard had worked in net­work TV be­fore, and they weren’t ea­ger to re­turn. If they were go­ing to, things would have to work dif­fer­ently.

“With ‘Law & Or­der: L.A.,’ I chose to go by the book,” Howard says. “I would qui­etly com­plain, but at the end of the day, I would say what they told me to say. And we got can­celed.” The same went for “Way­ward Pines,” which, due to the va­garies of net­work pro­gram­ming, just started air­ing even though Howard shot it first. “When I got to this show — my daddy told me, ‘You have to stand for some­thing or you’ll fall for any­thing.’ So there were a lot of mo- ments where I cre­ated an­ar­chy on the set for the sake of the end prod­uct.”

That “an­ar­chy,” as Howard put it, meant buck­ing the writ­ers’ de­ci­sion to have Cookie snitch on Lu­cious in the fi­nale or to have Lu­cious in­ad­ver­tently give him­self away by sleep­ing with an un­der­cover FBI agent. Not play­ing ball, he said, gave the show “this other lit­tle touch, and as a re­sult, we got 21 mil­lion peo­ple that watched the fi­nale.” In the com­ing sea­son, he hopes to sit back and let the show run­ners do their job, “but at the end of the day, they’re the coach­ing teams and we’re the play­ers on the field.”

If that sounds a lit­tle like let­ting the inmates run the asy­lum, well, it’s hard to ar­gue with the way it’s run­ning now. As net­works try to em­u­late “the ‘Em­pire’ ef­fect,” they’d do well to con­sider how the show is made and not just what ends up on the screen. “Ev­ery­one was say­ing ap­point­ment TV doesn’t ex­ist any­more,” Hen­son says. “It does when you don’t take your au­di­ence for granted. Don’t keep them safe. The world is not safe.”

Carolyn Cole. Los An­ge­les Times

“I DIDN’T THINK Fox would ever pick it up,” says Taraji P. Hen­son, who plays smack-talk­ing Cookie Lyon to Ter­rence Howard’s hip-hop mogul Lu­cious on “Em­pire.”

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

REV­EL­ING in “Em­pire’s” suc­cess are, from left, show run­ner Ilene Chaiken, co-cre­ator Lee Daniels, ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Brian Grazer and co-cre­ator Danny Strong. Daniels and Strong’s se­cret? Don’t take the au­di­ence for granted.

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