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Anatomy Of A Hit: Why Everyone Watched—And Talked About—”Empire”

With the show’s first season coming to a close on March 18, Co.Create talks to showrunner Ilene Chaiken about the casting decisions, investment in original music and fast-paced storytelling that have made this primetime soap opera a smash.

Anatomy Of A Hit: Why Everyone Watched—And Talked About—”Empire”
[Photos: Chuck Hodes, courtesy of FOX]

Chances are many of you have found yourselves Googling Jussie Smollett, marveling at Cookie’s animal-print ensembles, or humming “You’re So Beautiful” in recent weeks because everyone, it seems, is obsessed with Fox’s Empire.

Co-created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, who had worked together on The Butler, the primetime soap opera about a family-run hip-hop dynasty is a hit—a huge hit. 10 million viewers watched Empire‘s January premiere, and viewership has climbed each week, with 14.9 million viewers tuning in to the March 11 episode.

The numbers are astounding—we just don’t see new series on broadcast television blow up like this these days. So how did Empire break through in such a big way? While there is no magical formula when it comes to producing a hit television show, there are certainly things to be learned from how Empire is put together, and Co.Create spoke to Ilene Chaiken, Empire’s showrunner, to get the details.

Ilene Chaiken

Chaiken, best known as the creator and executive producer of the groundbreaking Showtime series The L Word, which centered on a group of lesbians going about their lives in Los Angeles, points out that she joined Empire as showrunner after the pilot was shot. Initially hesitant to commit herself to running someone else’s show as she was developing projects of her own at the time, Chaiken changed her mind after screening the Empire pilot at Fox. “I walked out of the room when it was over and called my agent and my manager and said, ‘This is a game changer. I want to do it. Tell me what I have to do,’” she says.

Here, Chaiken talks about the elements that have come together to make Empire the hottest new series on television.


It’s Unapologetically Soapy

Like Dallas and Dynasty before it, Empire is a primetime soap opera built on family drama. “It’s my favorite format,” Chaiken says. “There are a handful of things that television does really well, and I love serialized drama most of all because it can only live on television. It’s been compared to the serialized novels of the Victorian era. I really do think it’s that. It’s life as we live it. It’s character first and foremost, and it gives us an opportunity to tell stories that are character-based and to live with people as they evolve over the course of years and years. That’s such a great thing to be able to do.”

“You have to make the audience gasp at least three times an episode—maybe more”

Daniels and Strong brilliantly constructed the premise for their primetime soap, making the stakes high from the outset when we learn in the pilot that music mogul Lucious Lyon (played by Terrence Howard) has been diagnosed with ALS and is determined to take Empire public before he dies as well as crown a successor from among his three sons to run the company. Making matters more complicated, Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) gets out of jail after serving a 17-year-sentence for a drug deal that both she and Lucious were involved in, and she demands a role at the company she co-founded.


Story Is Told At Breakneck Speed

What sets Empire apart from its predecessors is the pace of storytelling—has there ever been a primetime soap that moved this fast? Big reveals haven’t been hoarded for the finale (though we expect to see many on March 18)—there have been major revelations and plot twists in every episode of the show. “We are doing it on purpose, and it is something that we identified earlier on. I try not to be too analytical, but you have to be somewhat analytical and look at what’s working and how the medium of television has evolved, and one of the first things I said as a principle is you have to make the audience gasp at least three times an episode—maybe more,” Chaiken says. “It’s really, really important. You have to create a gasp, something breathtaking, something that the audience can’t help but talk about several times per episode. I’ve been asked, ‘Are you worried about running out of story?’ Absolutely not.”

From Veteran Performers To Newcomers, The Cast Clicks

As dramatic as the show is, Empire wouldn’t work if the actors didn’t captivate the audience. “Casting is everything in television,” Chaiken says, noting that Henson and Howard, who had previously worked together on the 2005 film Hustle & Flow, are the foundation of Empire. “They’re incredibly gifted and layered, superb actors,” Chaiken says of the Academy Award nominees (Howard was nominated for Hustle & Flow; Henson got her nod for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). “We don’t get that every day when we’re putting together a project for television.”

“I don’t know if you’ve heard this story before,” Chaiken continues, “but Taraji didn’t have the job yet when she interviewed with Lee Daniels for it, and she said to him, ‘I’ll do your show if you cast Terrence Howard.’ It was very Cookie-like, frankly, but when you watch the two of them work together, there is a humor and affection and a real connection between them that’s just incomparable, and it plays in virtually every scene in which they are together.”

The dynamic duo is surrounded by a mostly unknown cast of actors that includes a trio of talented up-and-comers—Trai Byers (Andre), Bryshere Y. Gray (Hakeem) and breakout star Smollett (Jamal)—who play their sons. “Terrence and Taraji have really extended a hand and worked closely with their colleagues,” Chaiken says. “Everybody cares so much about the show, and from the moment we sat down at the table to do the first episode after the pilot, there was this sense that everybody felt, ‘We’re doing something special,’” and they all rose to the occasion.”

Empire has also attracted an entertaining parade of big-name guest stars from the musical world including Courtney Love, Mary J Blige, Jennifer Hudson and Estelle. (Patti LaBelle, Snoop Dogg, and Rita Ora will appear in the show’s two-hour season finale.)


The Show Reflects The Diversity Of The Real World

The conventional wisdom in television has been that a show with a primarily black cast is going to be a niche program, but Empire has turned that assumption on its head. Ratings have climbed every week since the show’s debut, and, as noted earlier, the March 11 episode of the show garnered a series high of 14.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“We’re making relevant television—television that looks like the world, television that allows people to see themselves and see their lives reflected,” Chaiken says, “and with regard to Empire, it seems there has been a joyful recognition of that.”

The show is also a hit on social media. While Empire has averaged 451,270 tweets per episode, that number jumped to 750,258 during the live broadcast on March 11 when Fox hosted a Twitter party with the cast. For comparison’s sake: The Walking Dead averages 444,029 tweets per episode. (These Twitter figures come from Nielsen Social’s Twitter ratings.)

There Is No Shying Away From Tough Issues

Lucious has repeatedly shown his disdain for his son Jamal being gay. “That storyline was core to this series from the very moment of its inception, and when I first met with Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, they told me that it was one of the most, if the not the most important storyline to them,” says Chaiken, who is a lesbian. “The story about homophobia in the black community is very much Lee Daniels’s story. It was very personal to him, and the details of the way it’s portrayed in Empire are his own details. His father threw him in a trashcan when he was a child [like Lucious tossed Jamal in a trashcan as a child after seeing him playing dress up in his mother’s clothes].”

Will Lucious ever come around? “We might see a slow evolution. I think we’re seeing that in the world. I know people who have changed their point-of-view from working on the show or being connected to the show. It’s what’s happening in the world. We’ve been fighting a battle for civil rights for decades, and the gains we’ve made in the last several years are remarkable. So we’re telling this story at a time when we really can see a change.”

Original Music Is At The Heart Of Empire—And It’s Great

Producing a television show as well as original music for a television show is ambitious, Chaiken admits. “A television show is a big proposition. You’re making multiple episodes. By the time you hit episode three, you’re writing scripts and prepping shows and shooting shows and posting shows all at once, and we’re putting music into production on the same calendar. It’s fabulous and challenging, both at once, and it was absolutely essential to create original music for this show because it’s the story of the show,” she says, “and what Lee Daniels did so brilliantly—and knew from the very start—is that the music had to be as good as the script, as good as the filmmaking in order for this to be real, and, obviously, he chose one of the very best music producers in the genre—Timbaland.”

Timbaland serves as executive music producer for Empire and has a hand in most of the tunes, bringing in a wide range of talents to write and compose songs. Impressively, three of the show’s originals—“You’re So Beautiful, “Conqueror,” and “Keep Your Money”—have made it onto Billboard’s Hot 100 chart since Empire premiered. Meanwhile, this month marks the release of an Empire compilation album of tracks from season one.


Cookie’s Wardrobe Is A Character In Itself

You can’t depict the music industry without making fashion a priority, and the characters on Empire dress the part. Hakeem, an aspiring rapper, is blinged out in the latest hip-hop styles, while his more business-minded brother Andre rocks sleek suits.

It’s Cookie who hands down has the flashiest wardrobe of the cast. It’s full of fur, bold accessories, and animal prints—she even has a leopard-print fedora! Empire’s costume designer Rita McGhee dresses the scene-stealing character in a way that reflects her big personality, and Timbaland’s wife Monique Mosley has actually lent the show clothing from her own closet.

“It’s hugely important to us. We consider it a big fashion show, and Cookie, of course, is the pinnacle of fashion on the show,” says Chaiken, who stresses fashion is just as vital to Empire as it was to Sex and the City. “Fashion is always going to be front-and-center on the show.”

There are a lot of designers who would love to see Cookie in their clothes, so you can expect to see her wardrobe taken to new heights in season two, Chaiken adds.


Fox Believed In This Show From The Start

You can tell when a network doesn’t believe in a show, but Fox, which produced Empire with Imagine Entertainment, got behind the series in a big way at the outset, launching a massive marketing campaign before the premiere that reached out to a broad audience of both men and women. Promotions included everything from sponsorship of the pay-per-view boxing match between Manny Pacquiao and Chris Algieri last fall to giving Empire tote bags to Black Friday shoppers in major malls to creating a light show at the Empire State Building synced to a mashup of Timbaland’s hit songs that was broadcast on Clear Channel radio stations across the country.

“I never in my life have been part of project that was supported both so generously and enthusiastically but also so brilliantly,” Chaiken says. “They believed in the show. They believed in it before it debuted. I sat in meetings and listened to their plan for rolling out the show, and I was really deeply impressed by the way in which they understood what the show was about and where it would resonate. They really spoke to every potential audience. I think they deserve tremendous credit for seeing it. We talked about the conventional wisdom being that shows of this kind of diversity don’t work on television. Well, they knew this show would work before it worked. They believed in it before it was a hit, and they have a great deal to do with why it is a hit.”

About the author

A regular contributor to Co.Create, Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com.

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