Empire: How Far Can Shock Value Take The Show?

Photo: Fox

Have you had a taste of Cookie yet? If the answer is yes, then you know the gleeful delight that is Empire. If not, you’re missing out on one of the most entertaining and groundbreaking hours of television.

For those that haven’t been watching, think of it as a hip-hop spin on Shakespeare's King Lear and Winter’s Tale with a modern ethos. After being diagnosed with ALS, slick music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) must decide which of his three sons will take over his record company, Empire. Things become more complicated when his ex-wife, the delicious Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), is released from prison after 17 years for selling drugs that paid for the company’s start and is determined to “get what’s hers.” Plus, there’s a murder cover-up, a surprise baby, mental breakdowns, incessant backstabbing and surprise guest stars, not to mention the Timbaland-produced beats infused into every episode.

The hit Fox drama (or comedy or music video, depending on your view) is one of the fastest growing shows on network television, thanks to word of mouth from ardent fans and a little help from “Black Twitter” that helps turn hashtags like #YasssJamal into trending topics on social media. Although there is rightful criticism of the show, Empire has shown that, when given the chance, a minority-led cast can make it in the big leagues. Tonight, Empire wraps up its first season and the episode is sure to include shock upon shock. But is that a good thing?

Cliffhangers used to be left for season finales or the occasional mid-season break. Now, major plot changes occur before the end of the first commercial break. And it works. According to NPREmpire’s success is a result of giving the people what they want and daring to buck industry traditions. For instance, TV execs have long catered to a young, white male audience, despite statistics showing that black people—particularly women—watch more television than any other group. Empire has proven (again) that white people aren’t scared off by female or minority-led casts as long as the show offers an engaging storyline.

Many of the beneficiaries of twist-and-turn storytelling (think Scandal and How To Get Away With Murder) follow in the footsteps of the dearly departed soap opera. It’s common to hear programs like Empire called soapy or compared to old favorites like Dynasty. Before their demise, soap operas pioneered the dramatic hooks that left viewers (mostly female) clamoring for the next day’s episode. The high stakes drama and over-the-top characters with tangled narratives helped soaps stay on air for 20+ years and gave them the ability to pull 30 million viewers for a single episode at their peak (a number only seen during annual event television like the Oscars these days). But that success did not last.

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Empire runs the risk of falling into the same problems that its soapy predecessors succumbed to. While the OMG moments that have made Empire so popular get people talking, it can be exhausting. With the need for game changing story lines every 15 minutes, there’s nothing holding writers back from unleashing their most fantastical ideas. This is how shows like General Hospital and Days of Our Lives managed to attract viewers and ultimately lost them when the stories became too repetitive or outlandish to believe (which is saying a lot for a soap).

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Trends by nature are temporal. Maybe Empire will evolve away from all the shock value in time. Or maybe it'll follow in the footsteps of the soap operas. The only sure thing is that, for now, Empire is doing what it must to entertain us. And we're eating it up.

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