'Empire' Strikes Back: Fox's Show Brings New Perspective to Small Screen

Veronica Brown '17 Assistant News Editor 

In the six weeks since the premiere of Fox’s “Empire,” the show has seen some of the highest ratings in recent television history. Unlike most shows, the numbers continue to grow each week, reaching an astonishing 11.9 million viewers with the sixth episode.

“Empire” viewers tune in week after week to see the complex narrative of competition unfold. The central plot riffs on Shakespeare’s “King Lear” with a dying father, Lucius Lyons (Terrence Howard), pitting his three sons against each other to win his affection and thus earn his kingdom. But the competition does not end there; throughout the show, Lucius battles with ALS, the police and record company rivals.

Other characters also compete with one another, most notably Lucius’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and his new fiancé Anika (Grace Gealey). Reviewers have praised “Empire” for its critique of respectability politics and nowhere is this social criticism more evident than in the rivalry between Cookie and Anika. In yet another charming performance from Henson in last week’s episode, Cookie shows up to the couple’s engagement announcement nearly naked under her fur coat. Though most descriptions of Cookie include the word “ratchet,” no one denies that she is one of the smartest and savviest characters on television. Even critics agree that the more audiences appreciate Cookie’s character, the more likely television writers are to present a wider variety of complicated black female characters.

In a recent roundtable discussion, “Pitchfork” pointed out that Lucius’ ALS, the driving force of the show, is a political move in and of itself. Doreen St. Felix argued, “Writing a black male character who has the audacity to die slowly and naturally, from a stately, tragic disease named after a beloved white baseball player [is] a new exercise in pathos.” Although the ALS diagnosis certainly adds an interesting dimension to the show and a timeline that’s become de rigeur for television drama, it also limits the show. Unlike Walter White’s cancer on “Breaking Bad,” ALS is a degenerative disease with no cure. Although “Empire” has elements of quasi-fantasy, it would be ludicrous for Lucius’ clinical trial to turn into a miracle cure that does not exist in the real world.

“Empire” joins the ranks of other recent successful shows featuring casts composed almost entirely of people of color, including the Golden Globe-winning “Jane the Virgin” and ABC’s new sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat. As these shows succeed, hopefully television executives finally realize that shows embracing diversity are both marketable and extremely important.