Empire finale: hip-hop Shakespeare set to break viewership records

Fox's modern day soap opera is breaking TV audience records and should again in the Wednesday finale.

Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard star in TV's biggest smash hit in two decades,
Taraji P. Henson (left) and Terrence Howard star in TV's biggest smash hit in two decades, "Empire." The season finale is Wednesday. Photo Courtesy Fox

SAN DIEGO, March 18, 2015 – It is the hottest show on television – plain old-fashioned TV at its best. “Empire,” the midseason phenomenon, ends its first season with a two-hour finale on Fox at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Its fans can hardly wait for Cookie, Lucious and the whole crew to mix it up along with guest stars Patti LaBelle, Juicy J, Rita Ora and Snoop Dogg.

Its producers and its network can hardly wait to see if the show will achieve another week of record-breaking ratings. It’s the first show in over two decades to increase its audience every single week in its first season. It is the top show among adults ages 18-49, and only “NCIS” and “The Voice” have higher overall audience viewing numbers on network TV. This could change Wednesday.

In an era where social media traffic is nearly as important as viewer numbers, “Empire” is killing it there, too. It gets more mentions than “The Walking Dead” or “Scandal.”

And it’s the first network TV show soundtrack to reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 since “Miami Vice” in 1985, 30 years ago. All for a show none of us had seen until 10 weeks ago.

The show stars Oscar nominees Terence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in the story of a hip-hop entertainment business family and the many other characters in their orbit. It’s jam packed with drama and diversity, music and mayhem, backed up with solid writing and acting.

Executive producer Danny Strong promises “an explosive finale” with shifting alliances, and several storylines may or may not be resolved. But he says there are no cliffhangers a la other infamous serials, such as “Twin Peaks.”

Lucious (Terrence Howard, center) struggles to decide which of his sons will inherit his fortune. Photo: Courtesy Fox
Lucious (Terrence Howard, center) struggles to decide which of his sons will inherit his fortune. Photo: Courtesy Fox

It’s just what Fox needed, with its longtime hit franchise “American Idol” fading fast, and “Glee” already mostly a fond memory. Fox did it by taking a chance, and it proved there are hungry audiences who weren’t being served by the current TV offerings. More than 60 percent of “Empire’s” audience is African-American. But its devoted white viewers are proud to be Cookie Monsters, too.

The show was renewed for Season 2 a few weeks ago for fall 2015. Strong says he doesn’t know what will happen in Season 2 or how many episodes will be produced. He promises more guest stars. It shouldn’t be tough to get them. The phone is ringing off the hook with people who would love to be on the show, which didn’t happen in Season 1. One of the few to take a leap of faith before “Empire” proved to be such a smash hit was former Hole frontwoman and Kurt Cobain’s widow Courtney Love.

What is the secret sauce that makes “Empire” such tasty viewing? It started out as wildly over the top, crazy like a fox (or Fox), with clothing and music finally making it from the streets to the screen in an authentic way. But as it progressed, people started to realize the acting was exceptional and the use of the music was right on target and actually worth listening to off the show.

Sure, there are a few stereotypes. But no more so than in network cop shows or situation comedies. What it shares with other successful TV shows are universally appealing dramatic elements, which all boil down to “Who’s doing what to whom?” and how are they going to get caught? It could be in the bedroom. It could be in the boardroom.

All’s fair in love and war. The literary concept goes back to the Renaissance; Shakespeare wrote about it, and business is the modern metaphor for war. There is more than a little Shakespeare about “Empire.” Producer Strong said he took the plot of Shakespeare’s play “King Lear” about family loyalty and relationships and set it in a modern hip-hop empire, hence the name.

What works for “Empire” is the focused timeline, mastered by the premium cable networks with series like “Game of Thrones,” and adopted by hits like “The Walking Dead.” The plot lines advance more quickly and in a more intense way. On “Empire,” middle son Jamal comes out as gay by Episode 6, a major plot development. On the series “Nashville” we are in Season 3, and the gay cowboy character is still wrestling with whether to come out of the closet. Dude, get on with it. Viewers don’t want plotlines padded and dragged out forever. Who has the time?

Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Camila (Naomi Campbell) watch a performance. Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX
Becky (Gabourey Sidibe), Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Camila (Naomi Campbell) watch a performance. Photo: Chuck Hodes/FOX

“Empire” is the perfect blend of fresh and familiar. It’s fresh to see an entire starring cast of African-American actors, some who are well known and some we’ve gotten to know and love. It’s fresh to hear the tart language (for network TV anyway) and see the eye-popping wardrobe from street to couture. It’s familiar to see the family dynamics and tensions created by the relationships, the hard luck, the tragedies and successes, the misunderstandings and the ambitions, all sparked by combinations of love and money.

So whether you’re Team Cookie, Team Lucious, Team Jamal or Team Hakeem, or secretly rooting for Becky like me (played by yet another Oscar nominee, Gabourey Sidibe), hang on for the wild ride through the final two hours. Then do a friend you really like a favor and force him or her to binge watch with you this summer so you’ll be all set for Season 2.

Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is president/owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, Calif. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Media Migraine in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego. Gayle can be reached via Google +

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