“Empire is my life,” Lee Daniels said of Fox’s new hip-hop saga, starring Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul, whose ex-wife did 17 years in the slammer for running drugs that financed his early career. After Lyon is diagnosed with ALS, the family begins to battle for control of his Empire Entertainment company.
“It’s mixed with happiness and sadness, as was Precious and The Butler – my other films,” a pajama-clad Butler told TV critics at Winter TV Press Tour 2015. ” It’s a fine balance – are we laughing or crying? And a little bit of camp!”
During the Q&A, critics marveled at the casting diversity they’re now seeing on primetime TV.
“People want to see the full world,” Howard said. “It’s the culture of America…we’re showing real life now.”
“They’re seeing shows with people of color can make money,” added Taraji P. Henson, who plays ex-wife Cookie Lyon.
This is shaping up to be the season in which TV programming with black casts gain traction. The morning after Empire opened, Fox boasted its initial stats: 3.8 rating in the demo 10 million viewers, which made it the best season opener this season in the demo, tying the other new drama with a black lead, ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder starring Viola Davis (3.8, 14.1 million). The highest-rated new comedy series this season is ABC’s Black-ish. Empire’s strong opening came the day after Tyler Perry’s The Haves And Have Nots posted a new season-premiere high for OWN with 3.22 million viewers.
“I’m impressed you can build a show around a character who is a violent, homophobic murderer with a fatal disease,” one TV critic complimented Empire’s EP’s.
“We named him Lucious for a reason,” series creator/writer/EP Danny Strong responded, noting the recent popularity of anti-heroes, naming The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano, Breaking Bad’s Walter White, and House’s Gregory House.
“For our mogul we wanted to have someone who was running the family but doing it in an iron-fisted way,” he said, calling Empire a “sexy juicy soap soap…infused with social issues.”
“I knew we had to have an actor who was charming and charismatic and likeable – and thus you have Terrence,” he added.
Daniels insisted Lucious was very likeable. “Yes, he’s homophobic, yes, he’s a murderer, but he’s human and we like him. I like him,” Daniels said. “My gay friends love him. They can’t figure out why. He’s flawed. We are all flawed. That’s what makes him so loveable.”
The series’ early flashback scene in which Lucious sees one of his young sons in his wife’s high heels and stuffs him into a garbage can was particularly tough to play, Howard said.
“I’m glad that I can show the African-American community that this is what you’re doing to your son, this is what you’re doing to your nephew, this is what you’re doing to the kid down the street.”