“We’ve got to keep these characters moving and growing, we’ve got to keep them feeling like themselves and keep the audience feeling as if they’re on a journey with us,” says Empire executive producer/showrunner Ilene Chaiken of the thrust of the fourth season of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s hip hop soap opera, the loss of Lucious Lyon’s (Terrence Howard) memory and one of his legs, and the surprises coming up. “At the same time we’ve got to change the show from year to year in the way that life changes, and we need to do that in the way that you have to in order to keep it fresh for both the actors and the audience.”
Starting out with a documentary on the 20th anniversary of Empire‘s label, tonight’s Season 4 “Noble Memory” opener wasted no time getting into the aftermath of the assassination attempt on Lucious and the reconfiguration of the Lyon family. Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie is now in charge, questions are being asked about what happened in Las Vegas, an almost blink-and-you’d-miss-her Queen Latifah appearance unveils a past connection to Lucious, and Demi Moore is on the scene as the scarred patriarch’s nurse and a perceived threat to Cookie.
Heading into this 18-episode season, Chaiken chatted with me about Lucious’ lost leg, Cookie’s takeover and adding Moore and Forest Whitaker to the cast. The EP also talked about tonight’s crossover with that other Daniels’ Fox show Star, which is on in Empire‘s old 9 PM slot and sees Jussie Smollett make an appearance, The L Word revival and how much longer she thinks the Lyon saga could continue.
DEADLINE: So Empire 4.0 starts with a show within a show but where is the series really at now it’s back and so time has passed for the Lyons and the recovering Lucious?
CHAIKEN: In the writer’s room we call Lucious 2.0 but maybe we should call it Lucious 4.0. The biggest story that we’re telling is the story of what happened to Lucious and the aftermath of that. He got blown up at the end of last season and he sustained a traumatic brain injury. I think that we were pretty transparent about the fact that when we were coming back he still hadn’t got his memory back.
We don’t like to call it amnesia because that just feels like an old kind of soap opera ploy. It’s a traumatic brain injury and he’s struggling with recollection, with brain function. With personality and with all of those things that people who’ve undergone that kind of a traumatic event have to deal with. And then as you know now, he also sustained a physical injury. He lost a leg, as we revealed in the season opener.
DEADLINE: Memory loss is nothing new to the world of TV series but why was the physical injury something you guys wanted to include?
CHAIKEN: We knew that we were going to do the brain injury, the memory loss, but we said in the writers’ room that this is a huge thing. We saw this massive explosion in the Season 3 finale, we saw Lucious flying through the air. So there’s also going to be some physical damage.
I really wanted it to be consequential because this happens a lot on television and we’ve done it before with no consequence. You know, we had Jamal get shot in a previous episode and then next time we see him, he’s feeling some trauma but he’s up and around. We wanted this to be real. We wanted there to be real consequences for Lucious like when this happens in wars. In Iraq and other places, people lost limbs. What if Lucious actually sustained that kind of an injury? Then we decided that we wanted to go for it because we wanted to do something that we couldn’t hide from.
DEADLINE: How did Fox react when you told them you wanted to inflict such a harsh injury on Lucious?
CHAIKEN: Look, it’s really about a man dealing with that change in his life, recovering himself, learning again who he is and who he wants to be. That’s what we’re dealing with, not what melodrama can we milk from the fact that Lucious doesn’t know who he is.
When we first began discussing this with the network in the middle of Season 3, I pitched to the CEO and the network, there’s going to be the explosion. That it all comes out with this Andre storyline and Lucious gets blown up and the last thing you’ll see is when he comes out of a coma and he doesn’t know who anybody is. The first reaction was that could be cool but we don’t want to do a parody. If you’re going to do this, and this was the network, you need to really do it in a true and medical way and talk about it as a real affliction, not a soap opera trope. So that is how we approached it.
DEADLINE: So, where will you take it?
CHAIKEN: Well, we have Forest Whitaker and Demi Moore joining us now and there’s some other great stuff coming up. I mean, really interesting story material coming up that I think we can’t talk about until you’ve seen it. Though actually the one other thing that I would talk about— because you did see a bit of this — is the flashback story that we’re doing this season.
Every season we do flashbacks and we try to kind of identify a story that’s going to be a flashback story. So last year it was when Cookie met Lucious, the year before that it was Lucious’ childhood history how he became Lucious Lyon. This season we’re finally telling the story of Cookie’s 17 years in prison because of course, it was her release that started the whole show.
DEADLINE: Speaking of starting the whole show, the season opener saw that Star crossover with Latifah approaching Lucious and Cookie backstage and the connection and perhaps future between the characters being discussed. Obviously both Empire and its now 9 PM lead-out Star have the creative hand of Lee Daniels in them, but did it feel like a natural fit to you for the season openers of both shows?
CHAIKEN: Oh Yes, and this was obviously something that the network is really excited about, it makes sense to cross over the two worlds. They’re both shows about music, they both are set in the real world, and they both have a tone that mixes greedy realism with soap.
I think one is at one end of the spectrum and the other is at the other end in terms of greed versus glamor. So we figured there’s no reason in the world why there wouldn’t be some connection among these people, and Queen Latifah is the perfect person to make that connection. And that backstory is all that moment is about but I believe it sets up a scene in Star. To be honest with you, I haven’t seen the scene but I’ve got to imagine that they’re going somewhere with that storyline.
DEADLINE: In terms of Empire Season 4 storylines, you’ve had Rumer Willis on the show since last year and now you’ve got her mother Demi Moore as Lucious’ nurse. Where are we going to see these characters go and how pivotal are both Demi’s characters and Rumer’s character to Season 4?
CHAIKEN: They’re very different, the two characters. Behind the scenes, they’re very much a mother/daughter team and that’s great, but in the show, they’re their own people. Their characters aren’t connected and their stories really live in separate kind of facets of the show. Demi plays Claudia Fletcher, Lucious’ nurse and therapist. She is prominent in the first half of the season, prominent in the dynamic among Lucious, Cookie, and Nurse Claudia. It’s very much a different kind of triangular relationship but filled with tension and kind of festering threat of something, and that remains to be seen but it will pay off.
DEADLINE: So Demi’s Claudia story resolves before the end of the first part of the season?
CHAIKEN: Not really, she’s with us through the first episode of the spring season. So Demi’s in the finale of the first half of our season and in the opener of the second half of our season in a very big way. The story that we’re telling with her really comes to a head and she’s a fascinating character for us, really important to Lucious and his rehabilitation such as it is. Claudia’s also important to Cookie’s new role in the family and her understanding of what she’s dealing with, with Lucious.
Rumer, who plays Tory Ash, is now very much a part of our ensemble. Now she’s an Empire artist. She’s in the show. She’s going to have some big story in the second half of the season. In the first half of the season, I would say that we’re just kind of establishing her presence as an artist and then as a person who plays a role in the lives of our characters, who has a relationship with each of our characters. But her big story doesn’t kick off until her mother’s story is played out.
DEADLINE: I know you’ve said in the past that Empire learned its lesson of being overwhelmed with guest stars in Season 2 but along with Demi, you have Forest Whitaker joining the show this season as a mentor of Lucious’ …
CHAIKEN: It’s going to be a very important relationship and a big story — not a guest star. Forest is doing 10 episodes of Empire so that tells you he is really front and center. He has real gravitas in that mix where it was really exciting to bring him on and to see him work with both Taraji and Terrence.
Of course, there will be some more guest stars, but since our second season, like you just said, and harsh lessons learned, we’ve really stuck to our guns. We now create our characters and our stories and then we reach out to the actors to cast them, rather than doing it the other way around.
DEADLINE: Looking at the planning for this season’s stories, what were the challenges going into a fourth season and now being the veteran on the block?
CHAIKEN: Well, it is a fourth season show and it’s always hard to sustain a show year after year, especially when you’re doing serialized drama. When your show has case of the week, self-contained story as what my colleagues at the network call a story engine, it’s not quite as challenging. In our case, we’ve got to keep these characters moving and growing, we’ve got to keep them feeling like themselves and keep the audience feeling as if they’re on a journey with us. At the same time, we’ve got to change the show from year to year in the way that life changes, and we need to do that in the way that keeps it fresh for both the actors and the audience.
DEADLINE: For a show that has lived large from Day 1 is that figuratively why you decided to blow things up a bit?
CHAIKEN: Sort of. We made a decision this year to take some of the biggest swings with Lucious having this brain injury, not remembering who he is, abdicating his role in the family and Cookie taking over. We’ve always wanted to do that, we’ve always wanted to see Cookie take the crown, lead the company, be in charge. It’s pretty clear that she should be but it also is pretty clear that when Lucious is, you know, is in his full power he’s never going to let that happen.
So this was a great opportunity for us to let Cookie have it and run with it and see who she is as a leader, as a CEO, as the head of the family and the company – which is a big part of this season. Then somewhere down the line, of course Lucious will at some point and in some fashion come back. What then? Will he come up against her? Or will he recognize that maybe she’s as good or better at this than he ever was?
DEADLINE: With the Empire future being female, at least for the time being, let’s talk about a certain other show of your – the return of The L Word. Where are things at with its return to Showtime?
CHAIKEN: As you know I’m not officially involved with the new L Word, other than I’m an executive producer and it will always be my show. Other than that, I’m really excited about it; excited to see what a new writer does with this world. I will always feel very connected to the show and stay connected to it in some way although I’m no longer hands-on.
DEADLINE: It’s funny, it almost feels like it has to get Meta because I can’t imagine the women of the new L Word not having grown up watching the original L Word…
CHAIKEN: It’s a really funny idea and we did talk about it. Of course, since Jennifer Beal, Kate Moening and Leisha Hailey are all three executive producers and reprising their characters, you don’t want to get too meta about it. But yes, we did talk about the fact that you can’t be a lesbian in 2017 and not talk about The L Word, so what can a new L Word do? Maybe they have to find another way to acknowledge that reality without getting goofy about it.
DEADLINE: You’re showrunning Empire still, a hands-off EP on The L Word and having re-upped your overall deal with 20th TV earlier this summer – so what else is going on with you? What’s coming next?
CHAIKEN: (Laughs) I’m working on some new projects and I’m excited, but we’re not ready yet to talk specifics. I hopefully will talk specifics with you very soon, but I’m developing new projects that speak about the issues, the world, the characters that I’m passionate about and that I want to see represented on television.
DEADLINE: Not to be a bummer on the night of a new season debut but with Empire now four years in, how much more is there in the tank for the Lyons?
CHAIKEN: Oh, I’m not a soothsayer so I don’t know, but I think it’s got a couple more years in it. Let me be clear, I’m not saying there are only two more years, I’m saying that especially with this reset I’m hoping that Empire has got a few more seasons at the very least. I certainly think it does.