Ridiculous, camp and OTT: Why Empire is a TV phenomenon
Limara Salt | On 05, Oct 2015
With Empire available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, we look back at the first season of Lee Daniels’ phenomenal TV show.
It’s quite difficult to explain exactly how much of a phenomenon Empire is, but here goes. It is the number one show in America for people under 50. On average, it is watched by 33 per cent of African American households. It is the first show in decades to increase viewership every week throughout a season. And it has surpassed The Big Bang Theory as the most-watched scripted show in the 2014/2015 season. Those stats don’t even go into the influence it’s had over music, multi-racial casts in mainstream shows and, thanks to Cookie Lyon’s flamboyant leopard-clad wardrobe, fashion.
When the show launched in Britain on E4, people asked if the nation was ready a black King Lear set in the hip-hop industry, and while it hasn’t contributed to a cultural television shift like it has across the pond, it has plenty of fans. So what is it about this unashamedly soapy drama starring two Oscar-nominated actors?
Anyone looking to delve into Empire’s murky music underworld and the labyrinth of plot lines should know something immediately: it is ridiculous. It is the illegitimate lovechild of Dynasty and Dallas and every episode leads you down a path only to knock you sideways into another postcode. The “empire” of the title is Empire Entertainment, a record label run by Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). Before becoming a successful rapper and businessman, he was a drug dealer and those dealings led to the incarceration of his ex-wife Cookie (a scene-stealing Taraji P. Henson), who sat in a prison cell for 17 years so Empire could be built and her three sons could be looked after.
But now she’s out and looking to get what she feels she deserves: a piece of the company that could be built thanks to her actions. That’s the main crux of the show, but there’s also the unaccepted gay son, an ALS diagnosis, murder, multiple affairs that blur the lines of sexuality and decency, the politics of biracial relationships in America, how social media is used in the music industry, Naomi Campbell dating a teenager, Courtney Love as a singer with an addiction and numerous musical numbers produced by Timbaland.
It’s a lot, and although Empire isn’t doing anything particularly original, it’s such a fiesta of glossed crazy it stops mattering after about 20 minutes. What creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have done is manage to whirl all the plots, all the statements about being black in America and all the music into one cohesive soap opera driven by Taraji P. Henson’s magnificent performance as Cookie. She is Alexis Carrington, if Alexis Carrington sold drugs, went to prison and flashed a room of people (including her sons) her lingerie.
Empire is one of those shows you either go with or you don’t, and whether they can keep it up for another season that remains to be seen. Until then, there are 12 ridiculous, camp and OTT episodes to binge on.
Season 1 to 4 of Empire are available to watch online in the UK on Amazon Prime Instant Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I buy or rent Empire online in the UK?
Photo: Twentieth Century Fox