Hustlin’ and Flowin’

02.04.15 10:50 AM ET

Why ‘Empire’ Gets Bigger Every Week

No TV series in 20 years has grown in popularity as quickly as Empire has. How black voices, the changing industry, and Cookie—gotta love Cookie—contribute to its stunning reign.

Cookie is the greatest character to have slithered across our TV screens in a very long time. Might we say ever?

It’s the way Taraji P. Henson spits her toxic one-liners. It’s the mama bear devotion to her gay baby cub. It’s those fabulous, absolutely hideous clothes. And that name! Her name is Cookie!

That Cookie exists at all might be the most unexpected development of this season. She’s unlike anything we’ve seen before on network TV. The show she steals, Empire, is also unlike anything we’ve seen before: a crazy-sexy-cool concoction that’s part My Three Sons, part King Lear, some Glee, a lot of Dynasty, and a little Hustle & Flow.

Even the way Empire has taken over the zeitgeist is unlike anything we’ve seen before. Or at least in a very long time.

Fox’s musical soap opera stars Terrence Howard as music mogul named Lucious, whose rise from the streets to a record company’s corner office left emotional waste to his three sons. The oldest Andre, (Trai Byers), is a bipolar, ruthless corporate solider; Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is a gay musical prodigy spurned by his father’s homophobia; and the youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), is a little shit—a rapping Justin Bieber whose spoiled upbringing and absentee parents fueled his petulance and his mommy issues. Then there’s mommy herself, Cookie, who has just been released from jail and is back to get what’s hers: a piece of Lucious’s fortune, control of her children, and, apparently, New York’s most expansive cheetah print wardrobe.

The show is total nonsense. It’s also endlessly fun, captivating, and, thanks to the tragic emotional core of Jamal’s coming out story, surprisingly moving. As a TV success story, its rise has been unparalleled. There have been countless thinkpieces attempting to parse out why, but the answer is actually quite simple: it’s big, black, and beautiful—in every glorious, celebratory sense of those three words.

Empire is an unprecedented series in an unprecedented moment for diversity in television. It was a monster hit out of the gate, surpassing ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder as the year’s top-rated new show among viewers under 50. But the show is even bigger than that. Unlike Murder and other recent freshman hits, ratings for Empire went up in its second outing…and then up even more for its third episode. That’s unheard of.

According to Vulture, it’s been 20 years since any drama grew like that among viewers under 50. The last time it happened when you factor in all audiences was a decade ago when Grey’s Anatomy built its numbers in each of its first four episodes. Heard of that show?

What’s more, Nielsen reports that it was seen in 33 percent of African-American households, which is just an astounding number. (That’s five times as many as the week’s No. 2 show.)

But Empire’s success story is not a demographic-specific one, or a “black” success story. Its blockbuster build in ratings over the course of its first three airings dispel any notion that this is a “black” show for a “black” audience, an antiquated idea that TV shows need to be targeted to marginalized audiences and that—groaningly—“mainstream” (white) audiences wouldn’t embrace stories that reflect the lives of other cultures.

The week-to-week build means that Empire is a blanket hit, across all demographics. When viewed as part of a trend in TV this year, it becomes all the more clear that the entire idea of “black” shows or culture-specific shows must be banished. What we’re seeing instead is the mainstream embracing of diversity, of which Empire is but the latest example.

It’s telling that the three breakout hits this TV season—How to Get Away With Murder, black-ish, and now Empire—are shows featuring black leads and from black creators or executive producers. These are shows getting plum time slots, enthusiastic marketing pushes, and a strong message from the networks producing them: they deserve a big audience, of every color.

Empire builds on the discovery that Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, and How to Get Away With Murder maestro Shonda Rhimes eureka’d a long time ago. It’s far more interesting to tell stories about characters who are each 50 shades of good and evil and sexy and abhorrent and heroic and brave and despicable and strong and weak. And it’s far more interesting when everybody is allowed that full spectrum of behavior.

On Rhimes’s shows, and now on Empire, megalomaniacs and scorned lovers and bitches in heels aren’t caricatures. They’re characters with nuance and without judgment. And they’re, finally, of every color and sexual orientation, too.

These shows, and the rabid fanbases they’ve earned, prove that there’s payoff in adventurous, even insane storytelling.

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Empire is a show that, with a straight face, names its two lead characters Lucious and Cookie. Its melodrama is so Shakespearean that the pilot even cops to its cribbing of King Lear. It’s high camp when it wants it to be and brutally real when it needs to be, explaining how the cartoonish ferocity of Cookie and the upsettingly honest narrative revolving around Jamal and homophobia in hip-hop can co-exist on the same show.

And if every tonal yin in Empire has its yang, then Henson and Howard are on-screen soulmates.

Looking at Hustle & Flow and Empire as bookends of their Hollywood careers thus far, you see why they need each other. He’s the safe space that makes her comfortable enough to growl out such a guttural, raw performance. And she’s the necessary presence to dirty up the fraudulent, insufferable preciousness that suffocates most of Terrence Howard’s work. The relationship is even played for a little self-aware “art imitating life” plotting on Empire. It’s only when Cookie saunters into a room that Lucious drops the act, gets gritty, and is himself, which is to say finally likable.

But one of the major tenets of Empire’s success is how addictive it is. That this audience is so large, growing, and committed to watching each episode in real-time is huge. Nobody watches live TV anymore. And let’s be completely honest: there are dozens of TV programs that are better than Empire. So what is it about this show that’s hooked people so voraciously when those higher quality programs haven’t been able to?

For one, it’s faux-baity, in that it’s chockfull of headline-grabbing nonsense rife for web listicles of “Empire’s Most Shocking Moments.” On one end of that is the cheap entertainment that comes anytime Cookie storms into a room, chucks a shoe at someone, or hisses one of her catty one-liners. On the other end is the highbrow-lowbrow mix of moments like the rant calling Obama a sellout and, of course, the blow job bib. (A blow job bib? You learn something new every day.)

But the brilliance of Empire is all the ways that it’s not courting controversy for the mere, shameless sake of gaining attention or drumming up eyeballs and tweets. It’s confident in its narrative and its ability to carry our attention. This is in contrast to, say, the relentlessness of the ad campaigns for How to Get Away With Murder, which teases each successive episodes with #OMG hashtags that specifically draw attention to the show’s most glaringly baity moments.

The experience of discovering and obsessing over Empire is a rare one these days. We haven’t been bribed into watching by promises of nine words you just won’t believe. (Ahem: “Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone?”) We haven’t been bullied into sampling it by critics.

Empire’s reign has been a victory for old-school word of mouth. It was never an obvious hit. If I’m being totally candid, it never seemed like something I would ever watch or enjoy. And I have a feeling that I’m not the only person who’s come on board to the show who felt that way.

It’s no small potatoes that, along with Danny Strong, one of Empire’s creators is Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), who is probably the most visible black filmmaker besides Tyler Perry. And here he is on television, where Perry has long made a second home, telling a story that viewers, judging by the ratings, have clearly been craving. Hot on his heels making the transition to the small screen is Selma director Ava DuVernay, who just announced a television deal with Oprah Winfrey for OWN.

Even a fool could look at the rise of diversity in television and the rise in quality of diverse programming and see a connection to the recent #OscarsSoWhite scandal, including the egregious snub of DuVernay herself for Best Director at the Academy Awards. Audiences are craving stories about the full spectrum of human experiences, and creators from all points on that spectrum are eager to tell those stories. So these voices are going where they can be heard. They’re going to TV.

Because here’s the bottom line: Audiences want more Cookie. Give us more Cookie. Cookie is the best.