That Piece About Empire Losing Its “It” Factor

That Piece About Empire Losing Its “It” Factor

Originally published on

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 badass 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.

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  1. Mandy
    November 10, 06:20 Reply

    So Empire is now apparently struggling with ratings. Quite a long way to go from a second season that debuted with astonishly high ratings. Lee Daniels, looks like your juju is not holding up. lol

    • Pink Panther
      November 10, 06:22 Reply

      ‘The cast of Empire is great. The acting is wonderful, and the new talent that is emerging through the show is refreshing.’

      The writer of this piece was even nice sef; he/she gave them some undeserved good points. Mscheewww

  2. Max
    November 10, 06:46 Reply

    The show is bad, script, acting, editing (sound and video). I expected more from season two but all I’ve been getting from it is disappointment week after week.

    • Pink Panther
      November 10, 06:48 Reply

      And yet, look at you, having hope and watching episode after episode. LOL! Omo, I got off from the Empire train at Episode 2 railway station. No time. Too many more and far better series out there to watch.

      • Max
        November 10, 07:04 Reply

        I like giving shows benefit of doubt, so I’m gonna finish it.

  3. Dennis Macaulay
    November 10, 06:48 Reply

    For me what is killing it is the plenty stars that they bring every time on the show. They appear desperate!

  4. Sinnex
    November 10, 07:29 Reply

    As long as Hakeem is till in the show, I am going to watch it till the end.

    Mehn, that guy makes me feel somehow somewhere.

    • Max
      November 10, 07:34 Reply

      Young, thuggish, cute body, air head; just your type.

      • Sinnex
        November 10, 09:20 Reply

        You know me so well…let’s elope to Seychelles and get married.

  5. R.A
    November 10, 07:34 Reply

    Show so childish, gets worse with each episode and I can’t just deal. Still haven’t heard a song from season 2 I’d like to have on my phone(at least for the pains). Only good acting i see: Terrence Howard and Kelly Rowland. The rest? Meh ??

    • posh6666
      November 10, 08:42 Reply

      Pls oh what has Kelly acted really?just say u like her naturally,other than the few flash backs?even with the few scenes where she hardly said anything most people have rated her acting mediocre and calling for her to have bigger scenes then we can actually judge her acting.

      • R.A
        November 10, 09:22 Reply

        I also like Chris Rock and Ludacris ‘naturally’ too.

  6. burlesque
    November 10, 07:35 Reply

    The movie is no more abt what it used to be. The family and their struggle and MUSIC. Their sound. Season 1 still has d finnest of music all this artistist coming and going just bore me.

  7. Deola
    November 10, 08:03 Reply

    “The cast of Empire is great. The acting is wonderful…”

    aaaaand the writer lost me.

  8. bruno
    November 10, 08:14 Reply

    saw an episode for the first time during this weekend thanks to bf. just wasn’t a very good show.

  9. posh6666
    November 10, 08:46 Reply

    I am beginning to feel like am just wasting my time and data downloading Empire,season1 was over pumped with so much action/drama and climax was reached too early as such s2 is suffering for it.Honestly like sum1 said above am yet to hear a song i like enough to download,reality is s2 wont be blowing at all at all.

  10. Delle
    November 10, 09:51 Reply

    Even if Empire’s ship’s sinks today, I’m sending Andre a lifeline! That boy got me barking and roaring all at once!
    I love Cookie so much, I do not know why such scriptwriting would want to hamper such a wonderfully talented actress! And they sing too much abeg…it’s becoming quite off-putting.

    They need to replace Hakeem IMMEDIATEMENT! He acts like he’s in a gym getting instructions all day!

    • Delle
      November 10, 10:37 Reply

      Oops! Meant to say ‘ship’ not ‘ship’s’

  11. Chizzie
    November 10, 10:29 Reply

    I saw this coming. Never liked the first season, only just pretended to. This is precisely what happens when a black show is riddled with black sentiments, directed by a black gay man, who portrays gays and fat people ( the Precious girl) in biased light, and with everyone from Jennifer Hudson to Naomi Campbell making appearances, the show was becoming a public toilet as far as casting was concerned.

    I think gay directors fall into the mistake of having a gay character who is invincible and does no wrong and who is always the good guy, plus they tend to over do it with the gay exposure thng and the show or series becomes too gay to function. The same applies to minority race directors who give out roles based on affirmative action. And Lee Daniels falls under both categories of people, so it was only a matter of time before ratings plummeted

    Lee should take several notes from Shonda on how its done

    • Pink Panther
      November 10, 10:44 Reply

      I’m sure Shonda has white screenwriters working for her. But you see, Lee says he doesn’t like white screenwriters. Lol. *smh* It’s then almost embarrassing to think that Empire’s writing is solely the work of black screenwriters. I mean, seriously?

      • Chizzie
        November 10, 11:05 Reply

        Well I’m not surprised. African Americans are not good at anything, except having baby mamas and making twerk videos.

        • keredim
          November 10, 12:15 Reply

          Wow!! that was a bit harsh.

          I know its your well researched and considered opinion and you are allowed to air your views and stuff, but such generalisation is very unbecoming.

          Its like saying you don’t expect much from the Hausas because they are only good for herding cattle, or the Igbos because they are uneducated traders….

          @Rapum, its not racism if your are of the same race

          • Rapum
            November 10, 12:32 Reply

            He’s not African-American and I didn’t mean ‘racist’ in relation to colour but rather to nationality/ethnicity. Anyway, that’s for want of a better word.

            He also says that the writers overdo it with ‘the gay exposure thing’ and hence make the show ‘to gay to function.’ I love Covet Affairs. No gay guy, hardly any black character. Yet nobody is complaining about it being ‘too straight or too white to function’. And it’s only one out of the hundred shows/movies like that. I think what we have, even bigger than the homophobia we endure and fight, is a problem of consciousness. Without knowing it, we push ourselves into the shadows; and even when someone comes along to pull us out, we find ways of running back.

            • Pink Panther
              November 10, 12:41 Reply

              Lol. Rapum, Chizzie’s ‘traditionalist’ views no longer surprise me. When he goes off like this, I think of Caitlyn Jenner, the trans woman who said she didn’t feel comfortable with gay marriage.

            • keredim
              November 10, 12:49 Reply

              Well you know the road to self acceptance is long and winding, and the speed of travel is different for everyone.
              Some are fast, some slow, some just stagnate and you pray they start moving again or at least move aside and let others pass. But ultimately we all get there at some point.

              • Chizzie
                November 10, 15:29 Reply

                Keredim, isn’t this road to self acceptance a relative thing? What if my idea of self acceptance is entirely different from yours, which it is btw.

                And I meant to say ‘most’ African Americans, not all. Yes a handful of them are alright, mostly those that were raised in predominantly white communities but thats where it ends

                • Khaleesi
                  November 10, 17:44 Reply

                  Chizzie, you’re so stupid yet so intelligent in a stupid sorta way that ends up unraveling the building blocks of the intelligence that your stupidity tries so hard to thwart … Did i make sense? Who cares, bottom line is underneath the intelligence that frequently shines forth from you, there’s a rich motherlode of bullshit and stupidity that ruins it all, much like when you’re careless while slaughtering a goat and the bile from the gall bladder gets onto the meat … it ruins it all however great the meat would otherwise have been!!

                  • Chizzie
                    November 10, 17:54 Reply

                    Haaiin. Wont say anything mean to you cause you are light skinned and sexually attractive.

                    God bless you. I love you.

                • keredim
                  November 10, 19:29 Reply

                  Sorry Chizzie, I couldn’t get back to you before Khalessi understandably unleashed her dragons.

                  Within the context of this exchange, let us agree that the road to self acceptance is the road to accepting our sexuality and specifically being gay.

                  So MY idea of self acceptance Is not thinking that being gay is an affliction, rather it is a blessing.
                  It is not something that I acquired via osmosis or sublimely put in my head by outside forces but rather it is the way I was made. It is who I am and I am not ashamed of it and It ain’t going nowhere.

                  I wouldn’t presume that our ideas of (gay) self acceptance are the same, but I would be honoured if you could share yours (on here or otherwise)

                  Re: African-American’s. Your comment (and past ones) implies that everything white is good…. PP would joke and say that such thinking is “traditionalist”, I would venture to say “Colonial”

                  The “handful of black Americans” you consider as “alright” would find your comment offensive.

                  Contrary to what we see on TV, there are impoverished white areas in America and affluent Black areas as well.

                  • Chizzie
                    November 10, 20:52 Reply

                    Keredim, when the chips are down, I am right. Whites are better off and way up in the social hierarchy than African Americans, Asian Americans are in ways better off and more affluent as well. And African immigrants always end up doing much better than African Americans because they better utilize the opportunities there.

                    The fact is, even African immigrants regard most African Americans lowly and do not readily mingle with them. Its just the honest truth.
                    Yes there are a few African Americans that have made something of themselves and have become distinguished but these have all been exposed to some white influence.
                    African Americans that roll exclusively with African Americans hardly make anything of themselves.

                    And we are seeing it with Empire, the show is struggling possibly because of its non white screen writers and lack of white veiwership.

                    You are an African immigrant, or something of sorts and lets face it, from all indications you are better off than the average African American. You type better english for starters

                    Oyah now about this straight and narrow road of yours. Last I checked, I am as gay as they come. Proud of being gay, might even become an LGBT activist someday. I’ve said this several times but its worth reiterating – Just because I do not think like the typical gay man, or agree on some gay issues especially trans issues, gay content on TV and what not, doesn’t mean I am homophobic or transphobic, or ashamed of my sexuality.
                    It doesn’t!

                    Ps : Hope I am not coming off as a market woman fixing for a fight?

                    • Keredim
                      November 10, 23:08

                      I don’t suppose 400 years of slavery followed by legalised racism, then institutionalised racism has anything to do with the position of the average African Americans on that socio-economic hierarchy you mentioned.

                      Glad you are proud of being gay and you are considering LGBT activism in the future. I don’t know what a “typical gay” man looks like, so I can’t vouch for how they think, but i do know a progressive thinker when i read their thoughts.

                      PS: No you did not come across as a Market woman fixing for a fight. Infact i am well impressed (not that it matters). I thought by now you would have dismissed me as being gay, in my 40s and therefore have no business being on social media.

                      Well done. I can only thank God for that, Praise God. As we say “Chi-Ebukar”?

                    • posh6666
                      November 10, 23:12

                      Kere love you are in ur forties?now am all turned on,see i knew there was sumthing special bout chu…..u know that saying “the wine tastes berra with age”hellurr?

                    • Chizzie
                      November 10, 23:45

                      Lol. Ok nice one.

  12. Rev; Hot
    November 10, 17:28 Reply

    eeeeeeeyah! me I don’t care, once I start watching more than one season – I get attached to the characters so much that I can’t quit watching no more…

    so this piece for me, is preaching to the wrong folk…

  13. tarter
    November 11, 05:55 Reply

    d problem isn’t the celebrity cameos,the problem isn’t the
    acting(we tolerated it in the first season), the problem isn’t too much gay content, the
    problem isn’t too much music,the problem is the overhype
    and writing,the show got too much unnecessary hype its
    first season,hence making expectations very high,and
    when your expectations are high,the chance of
    disappointment increases..too much hype killed
    empire,made expectations high, and having high hopes
    most often lead to disappointment.And the writing? its just
    all over the place..

  14. Lothario
    November 11, 21:03 Reply

    This writer was really nice and very diplomatic. I really am trying hard to finish episode 1, anytime I get interrupted by something else, I’m always so happy to leave it.

    As for why no one is calling Lee Daniels racist is beyond me, that statement was really terrible.

    • Pink Panther
      November 12, 05:08 Reply

      Very very terrible. And you’re right. Racist too.

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