‘Empire’ Has Always Known What TV Is Just Figuring Out: Black Culture Is Mainstream Culture

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Empire co-creator Danny Strong has likened his show to Game of Thrones, remarking that the two hour-long dramas are both centered on “kingdoms at war.” The comparison feels particularly apt considering the colossal viewership of both series: Game of Thrones has famously become TV’s most pirated show, and HBO’s most-watched ever, while last year Empire knocked The Big Bang Theory off its throne to become broadcast television’s #1 rated series.

The dominance of Empire, the music biz drama that returns to Fox on Wednesday to finish off its second season, feels particularly apt right now. Lately, an important conversation about race and heritage in America has taken place at the cinema, on the Grammy stage, and in Broadway theaters, and it courses through the series like adrenaline. The show’s popularity is a force to be reckoned with, a testament to the mainstreaming of black culture.

Empire is an unabashed soap opera, which means following its narrative strands can make you feel like a TV cop squinting at a “theory board” plastered with mug shots and lines of string. In the December mid-season finale, Hakeem voted Lucious out as Empire Entertainment’s CEO, and Camilla swooped in to replace him as Cookie looked on in horror. Meanwhile, Jamal kissed a woman (his musical hero Skye Summers, played by Alicia Keys), and someone pushed a very pregnant Rhonda down the stairs, a move that was surely meant to take her and Andre’s baby — and Empire’s heir — out of the mix.

The situation brings the Lyon family closer. With their business in someone else’s hands, Lucious and Cookie have to work together, and the family rallies around a devastated Andre. (Bryshere Gray, who plays Hakeem, delivers a particularly explosive verse in a song that Hakeem and Jamal write and perform for Andre in next week’s episode.) While his mommy issues continue to plague him, Hakeem makes a bold move to take over his father’s role as CEO of Empire.

Of course, Empire’s soapiness also means that characters appear and then disappear like mirages; you may be wondering what happened to rapper Becky G, who had an arc earlier this season as Valentina, who joins Cookie’s Lyon Dynasty label — before signing a contract with Lucious at Empire. She was replaced by the virginal Laura (Jamila Velazquez), a Mexican-American singer and Hakeem’s new love interest. Alicia Keys’ Skye appears to be gone, at least for now, but Brownsville rapper Freda Gatz (Bre-Z) is still around; in the new episodes, she and Jamal bond over their shared disappointment with Lucious.

Empire may lose track of its players, but its short attention span provides an opportunity for the show to feature a wide-ranging cast of actors, rappers, and singers, almost none of whom are white. Hakeem likes Valentina’s “fiery Latina” vibe, for instance, but he falls for the soft-spoken, sensitive Laura. Like Orange Is the New Black, the very premise of Empire allows for so many different kinds of characters that no one figure carries the burden of representing all black or Latino people.

That’s becoming true for television in general: for the first time ever, at the 2015 Emmys, two black women were nominated for “Best Lead Actress in a Dramatic Series” (Taraji P. Henson, who gives a masterclass in flaming-hot charisma every week on Empire, lost to Viola Davis for her role in How to Get Away with Murder). Black-ish was one of the 2014-2015 TV season’s biggest success stories, and remains one of the best and most consistently funny sitcoms on the air.

Empire’s ratings victory has pushed networks to create more programming with black actors in leading roles. This month saw the premiere of Underground , a prison-break drama centered on a group of slaves on a plantation in Antebellum Georgia. In May, the History channel premieres its remake of the iconic miniseries Roots, based on Alex Haley’s 1976 novel about a family of slaves. Donald Glover’s upcoming FX series Atlanta is another show set in the high-stakes world of rap; Glover is the executive producer, writer, and star. With the exception of Andre, the Lyons are firmly anti-religion, but in May Oprah’s OWN will premiere Greenleaf, about a family in Memphis that owns a black megachurch.

In a new Empire episode, Gabourey Sidibe’s character, Becky, mentions #BlackTwitter, a term that’s been thrown around since at least 2009 and has gained wider notice (read: white people’s notice) in the past couple years. According to a Nielsen report on black influence in the mainstream, black Twitter users “consistently drive global trending topics and cultural conversations”; another report released by Pew in 2014 found that young, black Internet users are more likely to be on Twitter than their white counterparts.

And then, of course, there’s the music. Hip-hop and rap are as mainstream as pop, with artists like Nicki Minaj and Drake dominating the charts and taking over the conversation; Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop musical Hamilton will thwart potential ticket-buyers for years to come. Like its country cousin Nashville, Empire has further saturated the entertainment industry with its original music, which you can buy on iTunes — last year, the show’s soundtrack debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

The more I watch the compulsively watchable Empire, the more I’m reminded of another musical drama that’s been generating a lot of buzz recently. HBO’s Vinyl feels like a useful counterpoint to Fox’s Empire. Truthfully, I disliked Vinyl from the start; the show’s characters give constant lip service to the idea of innovation, of finding the newest, freshest acts, but in practice, Vinyl’s parade of real-life rockers, from Alice Cooper to Janis Joplin to Elvis Presley, feels like it belongs behind glass in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Not only is Empire a million times more fun to watch than the self-serious Vinyl, it’s truly fresh.

Empire’s success is significant not just because of its demographics, but also because of its genre. While black sitcoms have enjoyed varying degrees of popularity, notably in the 1970s and 1990s, there’s not much of a precedent for black-centered hour-long dramas. As the film historian Donald Bogle pointed out in his book Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television, the lack of “serious weekly African American dramas” on TV has “reflected the evasions and fantasies of a nation trying, more often than not, to ignore or suppress its feelings and fears about race.” It may not strive for gravitas, but Empire has never shied away from confronting these feelings and fears; from its perch atop the throne of broadcast TV, the show is coolly overseeing a new era of cultural creation, one that redefines the marginal.