Considering that the scene was from a TV show about a backstabbing, drug-funded, singing-and-dancing celebrity family, the plot points for this day’s shoot on Empire were pretty straightforward. In an upscale Chicago sushi joint commandeered a few weeks ago by the new Fox drama, hard-nosed and fur-flaunting matriarch Cookie, played by Taraji P. Henson, was merely meddling in her son’s love life. But even though the scene itself was tame, the actress was nervous.
“Cookie scared the hell out of me,” Henson said, recalling her first impressions of a character who, in balancing murderous and maternal urges, is a rare example of a female antihero. “It was like, ‘We’re going to piss everybody off! The President’s going to hate me! The NAACP’s going to be done with me!'”
But putting on what she calls her “big-girl underwear” paid off. And speaking to Time more recently, Henson made clear that those initial nerves are now gone. These days, she says, if people want to be offended by Empire, let ’em.
She has reason for her newly blithe attitude–and whatever the President or the NAACP may think, the network has reason to love her. When Empire debuted in January, the musical melodrama quickly became a breakout hit. Reviews have been decent, especially from critics who embrace the show’s camp qualities, with Henson’s character often seen as the highlight. But the real enthusiasm comes from the fans. Nielsen’s measurement of Twitter chatter shows that Empire’s millions of viewers, including famous admirers like Shonda Rhimes, are highly engaged. Its audience is relatively young and diverse. And not only was Empire’s premiere the most watched of 2015 for a network drama (tying the premiere of How to Get Away With Murder for the season’s best ratings among viewers ages 18–49), but viewership actually increased in the following weeks.
“When you come from poverty, you’re so afraid of going back to being physically hungry, so you’re embarrassed to celebrate, but I’m learning how,” says Lee Daniels, a co-creator of the show. “I’m going to try to find a party hat.”
Empire’s cast and creators have several Oscar nominations between them. The show features brand-new music from Timbaland. It has instant quotability, in the form of Cookie quips (“Just ’cause I asked Jesus to forgive you don’t mean I do!”). But most of all, it has perfect timing.
In the age of Modern Family, it’s about a clan that’s the opposite of wholesome. (It is inspired by King Lear, after all.) Henson co-stars with Terrence Howard, who plays Lucious, her ex. They left a life of crime to start a successful company, Empire Entertainment, but Cookie got caught. She gets out of prison just as he’s picking which of their sons will run Empire next: the conniving businessman Andre; the soulful songwriter Jamal, whose sexuality is a point of contention; or the brash aspiring rapper Hakeem. Lucious has a deadline–the company is about to go public, and his health is suffering–but they’re not making it an easy decision. Oh, and owning a record label means they have to put aside time for musical breaks.
The show revels in soapiness and also in shock factor. It provokes on both sides of the cultural aisle, especially when it comes to incendiary topics like race and sexuality. Political-correctness watchers have plenty to get upset about–the first episode featured an anti-gay slur used triumphantly–and so do the old-fashioned morality boosters of the culture wars, who could in turn bristle at the intimacy of the gay relationship in question. That’s why Henson was nervous.
“I love that he makes everybody else uncomfortable,” says Howard of his character. “My agent was like, ‘Terrence, you could be hated for this stuff.'”
A New Archie Bunker
But for the most part, few people are speaking up about being uncomfortable. On Twitter, talk of being offended by what happens on the show is muted. Much more Empire-adjacent outrage has been directed at the network’s quiet reaction to accusations that Howard has assaulted women in the past, although that attention doesn’t seem to have affected ratings.
The ability to stay outré rather than offensive is tied to a hyperawareness of how the edge of the envelope has moved. Take, for example, Lucious’ estrangement from Jamal, whose sexuality he sees as a barrier to success. Their story draws on details of Daniels’ life as a gay man, and he wants it to make viewers think twice about their prejudices and those within the hip-hop community. Howard likens it to an Archie Bunker scenario: the bigoted character is the hero, but that serves to hold up a mirror for the audience.
Ilene Chaiken, who created the groundbreaking lesbian-centric series The L Word a decade ago, says that when she saw how straight men responded to a test screening of Empire, she knew times had changed. “The same kind of demographic representation a few years before would have rejected that character and that story entirely,” she says, referring to Jamal. “Instead, I saw them embrace it. I felt in some cases the wince, and then the real embrace of character and humanity.”
The show’s relationship with race is trickier. Empire’s largely black cast has been held up as an illustration of this year’s overall trend toward diversity on television. That’s a social good that has recently begun to benefit networks’ bottom lines, says Herman S. Gray, author of Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness. Networks used to want to push the fewest audience members away, which meant that majority populations and points of view ruled. If you didn’t like it, you were out of luck. These days, viewers who are interested in minority perspectives and communities can turn to cable and web video, increasing pressure on broadcast networks to diversify.
But while LGBT advocates have celebrated Empire, despite its use of the other F word, the show’s racial dynamics have angered some viewers, who accuse it of retrograde representation of blacks. What’s the good of creating a place for African-American actors–one of Daniels’ career goals–if you’re just going to ask them to play rappers and gangsters? In the Chicago Sun-Times, Mary Mitchell wrote that watching Empire was like watching “another reality TV show depicting black people behaving shamefully.”
Politics of Respectability
Lee Daniels was prepared for worse. His films, from Precious to The Paperboy, have been magnets for debate, not least for this reason. He received death threats after he made the movie Monster’s Ball, in which Halle Berry’s character falls for a racist. Friends pleaded with him not to cast Samuel L. Jackson as a pedophile in The Woodsman, on which Daniels worked as a producer. (Kevin Bacon ended up starring.) His own mother asks why he doesn’t make movies like Tyler Perry’s, in which people are at least happy. “I want to celebrate my people, but I also want to tell the truth,” he explains. “Good stories are about complex people and heroes that are flawed.”
Talk of the push and pull Daniels describes–truth vs. celebration, the matter of “respectability politics”–has been part of minority storytelling for as long as TV has existed, and it has a long history of raising hackles in a wide range of communities. The Sopranos and Jersey Shore were both protested by Italian-American groups, demonstrating that any show of any quality takes a risk if it plays with stereotypes.
But in the way Empire does just that, the show is very much a product of its time. That’s because, as Gray points out, Daniels’ creation isn’t alone. In January, an Associated Press study found that three of the broadcast networks, including Fox, employ prime-time casts that are at least as black as the general population. That’s thanks to Empire and also shows like Black-ish, the middle-class family comedy that ABC airs opposite it. And when television offers a wider range of stories about people from different backgrounds, the burden of presenting role models is lightened. Seen that way, the characters who might seem the most offensive are also signs of progress. (This doesn’t apply just to African-American stories. My colleague James Poniewozik has lauded the new sitcom Fresh Off the Boat for playing with identity politics in the Asian-American community.)
“I don’t want to separate them from the production context, but I also don’t want to separate them from the political moment,” Gray says, “the political moment being, Can African Americans–or can the expectations put on African-American creators–ever get past the politics of respectability?”
Daniels hopes the answer to that question is yes. And if not now, soon: Empire was picked up for a second season after only two episodes had aired. “You feel like your truth is not everybody else’s truth, so mainstream America would never respond,” he says. “But you cross your fingers.”
–WITH REPORTING BY NOLAN FEENEY
This appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of TIME.
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