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Thursday 29 September 2016

Will the rest of the world get hip-hop to US hit Empire?

IT’S official: Empire, which began on E4 last night, is now the biggest thing on American television.

The final episode of the first series, which went out in the US on March 18, was watched by 23.12 million, knocking The Big Bang Theory off its perch as the most popular series on TV.

For any drama to achieve those kind of numbers in its debut season, and at a time when the traditional television audience — the kind that watches on an actual TV set rather than on a laptop, tablet or smartphone — is in worldwide decline, is remarkable.

It’s doubly remarkable when the series in question features a predominantly African-American cast, albeit an exceptionally starry one, and is set in the world of hip-hop.

More astonishing still, Empire wasn’t shown on HBO or Starz or Showtime or any of the streaming services, but on network channel Fox, which isn’t exactly renowned for airing series that rattle the status quo. Unless you count The Simpsons, which stopped rattling anything years ago.

At the same time, Empire, the brainchild of openly gay film director Lee Daniels and Hunger Games screenwriter Danny Strong, who previously collaborated on the movie The Butler, plays it just about safe enough not to frighten the white, straight, Middle America horses by falling back on a reliable US television genre: the prime-time soap opera.

If you wanted to summarise Empire in one sentence it would be: “Dynasty meets King Lear meets Eight Mile — with songs by Timbaland.”

Terrence Howard, who claimed he was “pushed out” of the Iron Man sequels when producers demanded he take a pay cut in order to increase Robert Downey Jr’s salary, plays Lucious Lyon, a thug-turned-musician-turned-music-mogul who’s about to expand his already hugely successful, well, empire.

On learning he has a life-threatening illness, Lucious decides he has to put one of his three sons in charge of the business. There are snags.

The eldest, an Ivy League graduate, is the smartest and has the right business acumen for the job but no musical talent. He also happens to be married to a white woman, which would make him “not black enough” in some jaundiced eyes.

The middle son has talent to burn. One drawback, though: he’s gay, something that Lucious has never been able to accept (in a flashback, based on an actual incident from Lee Daniels’ own childhood, we see him stuffing the kid into a garbage bin).

The third, a rapper, is too much of a hothead to be trusted, yet seems to Lucious like the only acceptable compromise.

The battle for power is complicated

further when the boys’ mother, Cookie (Taraji P Henson), who’s just completed a 17-year prison stretch for the crime that provided Lucious with the money to build his company, turns up.

I don’t care for hip-hop and I wouldn’t be a fan of glossy, knowingly trashy soap operas, which is essentially what Empire is. That said, its success counts as some sort of breakthrough.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s not all that long ago that black actors were invariably cast as pimps, pushers or muggers on American television. From the late-70s onwards, series like Roots, Sanford and Son (a reworking of Steptoe and Son), Good Times, The Cosby Show and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air changed television’s colour scheme forever, and things have improved in leaps and bounds since.

Any series in which the characters’ skin colour is incidental to the action is a good thing, especially in a week when Baltimore has been torn apart by racial conflict.

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