No one took a tumble down the stairs on tonight’s Empire Season 3 fall finale, but that doesn’t mean the drama on the Fox blockbuster wasn’t explicit. And with co-creator Lee Daniels’ new series Star premiering in Empire’s regular 9 PM slot, it was full-tilt boogie on the network run by Dana Walden and Gary Newman.
With Shyne Johnson (Xzibit) revealed as the mole handing info on Lucious (Terrence Howard) to the feds and now teaming with troubled eldest Lyon son Andre (Trai Byers) to take over the empire on Empire, the threats were everywhere. Even more with a brief embedded marketing crossover to the Star debut and flashbacks to the Lyons’ past, as middle son Jamal (Jussie Smollett) descended further into a pill addiction that literally required his mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) to go under the sink to get his drugs to get him onstage for a concert for her city councilman-boyfriend and mayoral candidate Angelo Dubois (Taye Diggs).
And, Empire being Empire, there are twists and exposures to keep fans guessing until the show returns March 22 for the rest of Season 3.
I spoke with a refreshingly blunt Daniels about where this leaves the series and what the culturally sensitive Empire is feeding off in Donald Trump’s America. The director and producer also addressed the ratings declines seen this year by the show he co-created with Danny Strong, his feelings over Hillary Clinton’s loss, and what is under the grit and ensemble of Star, which stars Jude Demorest, Brittany O’Grady and Ryan Destiny and whose pilot Daniels directed and co-wrote with co-creator Tom Donaghy
DEADLINE: You guys went pretty hard-core and explicit in this midseason finale, especially with Jamal’s addiction issues and his mother as a pipe-removing enabler. Why so raw?
DANIELS: I think that we’re seeing a shift in the country and I think that we’re only depicting what we see in the zeitgeist, here and in the world. To stay true to our audience, we have to tell people what’s happening in the world in a soapy sort of way.
I think that this season with Jamal’s issues …I have had too many friends like Whitney Houston go on the other side, and I want to talk about that in Empire. Everybody wants to talk about the crisp and the glamorous. I really also want to show what’s going on with some artists today, and so that was really important for me.
DEADLINE: In that vein, as a big Hillary Clinton supporter, what does this politically charged winter finale have to say to Donald Trump’s America?
DANIELS: That we are not afraid. That we will endure.
DEADLINE: Is that how we will see more of Taye Diggs’ aspiring and now scandalized NYC Mayoral campaign touch on some of the new realities?
DANIELS: I think that it will spill over into next season so I can’t really …I can’t tell you that part. I’m not going to. No. No.
DEADLINE: Well, then can you tell us if we’ve really seen the last of Kaitlin Doubleday’s Rhonda after her ghost seemingly bid husband Andre farewell on the beach in the midseason finale?
DANIELS: (Laughs) Not if I have anything to do with it.
DEADLINE: The tone of this year’s midseason finale was very different than for the Season 2 Part 1 ender. There was more grit, less soap and no big fall or standard cliffhanger, except Councilman Dubois’ potentially murderous past being revealed by the press. Why the shift?
DANIELS: I think that we can’t keep going for the expected, man. I’m sorry. I just won’t do it. I mean I think that we have to change it up because if you don’t change it up then you’re going to expect something and if you expect something then we’ve lost you.
What I do also know is that while we’re on the air, we’re going to fight to give you good stories. I think that the writing team there and Ilene (Chaiken, executive producer and showrunner) and my partner Danny (Strong, EP and co-creator) and everyone have really done a great job of doing something special with Empire, especially this season. I really am proud of this season.
DEADLINE: But you have seen some big ratings drops this year. What do you think of that?
DANIELS: What do you want me to do? Tell you no, I’m happy about it? No, I ain’t happy about it, of course not. I would be lying to you to say otherwise, but I can only tell you that I’m happy that a lot of people are still seeing our show.
I think that we’re going to have our ups, we’re going to have our down just like any TV show — maybe ever more so. I think the thing is that we came out with such a bang where is there to go? I mean come on, man. We going to go to Mars?
DEADLINE: So, it’s just a natural curve?
DANIELS: (Laughs) I can tell you this much — it has nothing to do with storyline because this season I think is better than last year. I think we’re back to the first season really with this one, with the subtlety.
DEADLINE: Not being too subtle myself, but where does Star fit in that, in the world of 2017?
DANIELS: You know, when I started out I was really picking up where Empire left off with Star even though they’re two completely different stories. But I also saw, when Tom and I were writing Star, I saw a civil war brewing. I swear to God, I’m not joking to you. I saw it. I felt it and I couldn’t put my finger on what was going on. All I knew was that young black men were being targeted and I knew that Taraji, my parents and myself, we were terrified about our kids.
When you’re doing Empire you’re on, you have to face the story. You know where the story’s going. So I knew that I could tell a different story in Star, and so I was in Star although it’s a very small part of it, but you see it in the pilot, about Black Lives Matter and Quincy Brown’s character, Derek. Because I didn’t think that there were any heroes. In my lifetime I remember watching Malcolm X. I remember watching Martin Luther King. I remember my mother even saying you’re crazy for going down with the Panthers.
I said but there aren’t any heroes right now for young people of color to look up to, and so I created this character Derek so that we could find a hero to look up to, so that would encourage kids black and white to do something
DEADLINE: That’s a heavy load to take on, with the issues of race, discrimination on all side, class and the …
DANIELS: Well that’s the tricky thing you know, right? I think that what I did was make sure one of the characters in our show is white and is one of the leads of the show. I think a lot of white Americans will identify with her and I think a lot of black Americans will identify with her, too, and I think that through her we’re going to see how crazy this race issue is and it must stop.
I think that it’s very much like with Precious where we felt for that girl. We really feel for her. I think we’ll feel for all three of our girls on Star. And, yes, one is biracial, one is black, one is white and you’ll see what they individually go through in the America that we’re living right now. I hope a lot of healing will go down because of these three girls.
DEADLINE: Before the healing had a chance to start you got some backlash from some quarters for making a white girl your lead in Star, even giving her the name Star …
DANIELS: Well, I wasn’t surprised by that at all. I wasn’t surprised by it at all because that’s the America that we’re living in right now. See the show, and then come for me. Then backlash, but in the meantime, keep talking.
DEADLINE: What were you drawing on in developing Star, which is a very different creature than Empire, even if they live in the same fictional world?
DANIELS: I just remember the effect that Norman Lear had on me as a kid and how politically incorrect he was, and how he left me with my jaw dropped many times in laughing through the pain. He’s my hero. I ain’t gonna lie. He’s my hero.
I’ve often said that where Empire is sort of like Dynasty, Star is very Norman Lear. This is very Archie Bunker. This is very much Good Times, you know. We’re talking about the right to dare to dream. I wouldn’t be where I am at right now if I didn’t dream and it’s my intention to make these girls’ dreams come true, to show people that dreams can come true if you dream big enough.
DEADLINE: So, going into the Star preview and the rest of its first season, what should fans of your work expect from this healing and dreaming?
DANIELS: Well, they should be looking for great music. That’s first and we have it in Star.
Look, I can’t turn on the news right now. I can’t even go to the L.A. Times. I can’t go to the New York Times. I got to go to Deadline because Deadline gives me what’s going on in Hollywood, you know? But I cannot go to my other regular sources for news because I’m in denial and I think that America needs to escape after this election.
I don’t know about America, but I know I need to so I can only write to what my needs are. So I think that what you can expect from Star is great music with stories of women that dare to dream. Also family were it’s least expected and I think that you can expect also like little moments of what’s happening in America right now. I can’t hit you with too much of what’s going on in America right now because I don’t want to know what’s going on right now. I don’t. I’m sorry. It’s too painful. Maybe that makes me seem like an irresponsible citizen but I’m going to keep this very real and honest with you. I don’t want to know. I’m too pained right now.
DEADLINE: You were full on for Clinton, you spoke at the DNC, made ads, campaigned – is her loss still a shock?
DANIELS: Of course, but I feel that I did my civic duty. I feel like I did the right thing, that I can look myself in the mirror rather. Say Lee, you did the right thing and I don’t think many Americans that didn’t go out there vote, that didn’t go out there to rally people to vote can do that now. I know I can look myself in the mirror.
DEADLINE: You’ve got Empire, now Star, what’s the state of the Ms. Pat comedy?
DANIELS: I’m excited about Ms. Pat! I’m getting to half-hours now with Brian Grazer, who introduced me to Ms. Pat — who’s going to make you crack up and fall out. Again, hopefully try to make America heal. She’s politically incorrect. She’s Rosanne except she’s black.
DEADLINE: How far along are things since the put pilot commitment from Fox?
DANIELS: I’m working on it a little bit but I’ve got to keep my eye on Star and Empire for a second, primarily Star right now because Empire’s on hiatus.
DEADLINE: Even so, sounds like a full schedule and more, how do you keep all the pieces on the board?
DEADLINE: And how’s the therapy working out?
DANIELS: (Big laugh) The therapy is not working out well.