When Empire premiered in January, I liked it a lot and wasn’t surprised when millions of other people did, too. The initial ratings were huge, and in its second week, Empire did the increasingly rare thing of actually attracting more viewers, rather than dropping off. Since then, the ratings have continued to surge. It’s irritating that the show’s initial success was greeted with shock by most industry observers. That’s the same kind of reaction movie box-office observers have when almost any feature film with a primarily black cast opens at No. 1. Despite scores of examples, industry analysts continue to find it astonishing that depictions of black culture attract an enthusiastic mass audience.
Empire, co-created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, was conceived to be what it became: a sprawling, ribald family saga that spans generations and showcases every black pop music style to have emerged since the 1950s. R&B, soul, funk, MOR pop, and hip-hop crowd the soundtrack. It’s no surprise as well that the new Empire soundtrack debuted at No. 1 on the pop charts: Say what you will about the silliness of a tune like “Drip Drop,” Empire’s music-makers, on-camera and behind the scenes, know how to create catchy songs — even one for Courtney Love, who by extension has now scored her first No. 1 hit.
The Empire phenomenon has had an ongoing ripple effect. Around the country, local Fox news outlets that are programmed after Empire airs now frequently tailor news stories for black audiences. Last week, in the market I live in, the Fox local news promoted stories during Empire, telling us to stay tuned for stories about black hairstyles in beauty salons and a survey of local soul food restaurants. This is at once shameless and exhilarating. At a time when so much TV is aimed at niche or cult audiences, Empire dared to dream big and achieved its goal — probably beyond the imaginings of its creators.
In a sense, the success of Empire is embedded in the premise of the show. The Lyon empire was designed by founder Terrence Howard’s Lucious in the manner of Motown’s Berry Gordy and Sun Records’s Sam Phillips: as a way to expand the reach of regional music into nationwide music, to bring a wide variety of passionate artistry into homes that may never have heard music quite like this.
But now, the theme of the show has become the reality of the show. Heading into the finale, whether or not Lucious’s business moves for Empire Entertainment end up succeeding in terms of the ongoing storyline, Empire, as a piece of entertainment, has already exceeded anything Lucious or Cookie Lyon could have imagined.
Empire’s season finale airs Wednesday, March 18 at 8 p.m. on Fox.