I am always thrilled when shows with Black casts are produced on major television networks. Without hesitation, I will support by watching at least the first couple of episodes. If I can stomach the program, I will commit to watching it regularly. I felt this type of loyalty last year when FOX announced the newest addition to its lineup in Empire.
Season 1 monopolized the Zeitgeist. The world could not get enough of the evening soap opera. I personally enjoyed the ’70s, Blaxploitation film look of it all, paired with the original music and pop culture antics. And I loved the character development provided in flashback sequences. Every story needs a villain like Lucious (Terrence Howard), and a tell-it-like-it-is bada– like Cookie (Taraji P. Henson). The show touched on topics many others weren’t touching, including homophobia, religion, and mental illness. I was ecstatic that Empire had gained such a vast following and that Wednesdays seemed to be bridging the racial divide, even if only for an hour, as the viewing audience has been just as much White as it is Black.
That is why it pains me to say now, five episodes into Season 2, that the show has lost its “it” factor to me. There are many reasons why but let me start at the source with the show’s creator, Lee Daniels. He’s produced and directed great (and often controversial) films like Monster’s Ball, Precious and, of course, The Butler. But since the success of Empire, Daniels has been seen and heard more frequently in the media. Whether he’s speaking out on why Mo’Nique’s career didn’t take off after her Oscar win for Precious or appearing on talk shows to talk about the success of his hit program, Daniels has proven that he is not just a behind-the-camera guy. He comes alive with a very blunt opinion in front of the camera as well.
One particular interview that left me perplexed was The Hollywood Reporter‘s Drama Showrunner Emmy Roundtable. Daniel’s sat around the table, the only Black writer amongst writers of other popular and critically-acclaimed shows. I was proud to see him in that setting representing an almost silenced group of people–the Black screenwriter. When the topic of diversity in television came up, Daniels professed that “Nothing is more beautiful now than to go into the writers room of Empire. I don’t know what gives me more pleasure, watching my story unfold, or going in and watching the room full of Black people talking for me.” Daniels went on to say, “I hate white people writing for me. It’s so offensive.” Yet as I watch Season 2 and refer to Daniels’s roundtable sentiments, I am left perplexed because it’s the writing that is causing the show to lose its luster.
Episode 1 of Season 2 started with a stunt double Cookie dressed in a gorilla suit, descending from the sky in a cage. Once her cage reached the stage where a concert for Lucious was taking place, she ripped the suit off and protested, “How much longer are they going to treat us like animals?” This imagery, I’m assuming, was meant to attack the prison industrial complex and the disproportionate number of Black men and women in prison. But someone must’ve missed the memo that ape images are coon caricatures and the scene further perpetuated the Blacks-as-animals stereotype.
And then there are the petty moments. Specifically the moments when shade was thrown at 50 Cent and Donnie McClurkin. On the one hand, 50 Cent has publicly dissed Empire on social media for being similar to his hit show Power. However, Donnie McClurkin was simply dragged into unsolicited cattiness over his stance on homosexuality. During his cameo appearance on Empire, Lawrence Washington, known to the world as Miss Lawrence of Real Housewives of Atlanta and Fashion Queens, laid on top of a piano and said Donnie McClurkin would be attending an LGBTQ awards show. Gabourey Sidibe’s character responded by shouting “Shondo!” and throwing her hands in the air as if she were in church. The whole thing was unnecessary and came across as a desperate ploy for laughs.
Another thing about the show is that it has become about more and more about cameos. Celebs come to crash and burn. Al Sharpton, Marisa Tomei, Ludacris, Kelly Rowland, Ne-Yo, Sean Cross, Swizz Beatz, Don Lemon, Andre Leon Tally and Chris Rock are just a few who have all come and gone so fast it leaves you wondering, “Was that…?”
It’s all too much and too soon, taking attention and emphasis away from the core characters.
Lastly, at the height of the Black social justice movement, Empire writers made an attempt to address the #IfIDieInPoliceCustody hashtag that came about after the death of Sandra Bland while in police custody. As the FBI was investigating the family record label and the entire Lyons family, Cookie was arrested outside of Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem’s (Bryshere Gray) video shoot. Before being driven away, Cookie yells out of the police car window, “Is anybody videotaping this? If I die in police custody, I did not commit suicide!” And from there, it was impossible to tell whether Cookie’s character was trying to remind people of a serious issue, or just making light of a serious situation.
There are so many ways to touch on topics prevalent in Black culture today without being catty, insulting, insensitive and perpetuating stereotypes. Empire could start by not jam-packing one episode with too many themes and give the writing a chance to really delve into these issues. Not just gloss over them for quick laughs and shock factor.
The cast of Empire is great. The acting is wonderful, and the new talent that is emerging through the show is refreshing. But the writing is the issue for me. It is my hope that Empire’s success continues as this body of work has every right to exist in this place and time. But I hope such success won’t make the show’s storytellers lazy. The pressure is on, and I am holding my fellow Black writers to a standard that I know they can meet.