Empire: Are we ready for a black 'Dynasty'?

Lee Daniels wants his new series to emulate the 1980s soap and revolutionise network TV in the process

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The Independent Culture

Can a gloriously over-the-top splashy soap opera of a show about a hip-hop mogul, his warring sons and his vengeful wife become the first must-see drama of 2015? Lee Daniels, the writer, director and producer behind films as varied as the harrowing Precious and steamy melodrama The Paperboy, thinks so.

The show in question, Empire, which starts on US television next week, is Daniels' first TV series, a musical melodrama with a soundtrack from über-producer Timbaland and a cast headed by Oscar-nominees Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson. Daniels believes it will revolutionise network television.

That might sound like a bold claim but if anyone can give the January schedules a shot in the arm, it's Daniels, a man who has spent his career making films that refuse easy definition. "It would have been easy for me to go to [prestige cable channels] HBO, Showtime, Starz," he told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview last July. "Because my shit is R rated… [but] I wanted to make a black Dynasty."

Certainly, there's no mistaking Empire's soapy origins. The story of petty criminal turned record company mogul Lucious Lyon, his three sons and his estranged wife, Cookie, Empire, scripted by Danny Strong (who worked with Daniels on The Butler) with a pilot directed by Daniels, is the sort of show where characters are always announcing, "I'm here to get what's mine" or "I need you to sing like you're going to die tonight, like this is the last song you're ever going to sing."

It's a gaudy family saga, stuffed to the gills with backstabbing, betrayal and some very bitchy one-liners. Everyone is fabulously dressed, not to mention permanently one bad comment away from flouncing off stage right to plot nefarious revenge.

"It's definitely a soap opera but a soap opera that could go to the next level," says crime novelist Attica Locke, who joined the writing team after the pilot. "There's realness under the high drama and that's why it works. That's Lee Daniels' world."

It helps that his cast are clearly willing to play along. As Lucious, Howard smartly underplays, grounding the whole spectacle and making it real despite the heightened drama. As the ferocious Cookie, Henson goes the other way giving us a black Alexis Carrington Colby Dexter, hyped up on mother love but willing to play everyone to achieve her desires. Precious star Gabourey Sidibe turns up as Empire receptionist Becky and guest appearances are promised from Courtney Love as a hard-living singer, and Naomi Campbell as an older woman who catches the eye of son Hakeem.

But, in the first episode at least, it's all about Cookie. A one-woman force of nature in leopard print and red lipstick, the newly released from jail Cookie trails destruction behind her like a fabulous fake fur coat. When she's on screen, Empire blazes with life. "Part of what drew me to Empire was Cookie," admits Locke. "I felt like her character was unprecedented in that I'd never seen a woman or a mother like this on TV, so full of trouble and saying all the wrong things and yet you understand where she's coming from."

Where she's coming from in part is a desire to enjoy the trappings of a life that was denied for her during a lengthy stint in jail. "One of the things that immediately drew me to the story is that I don't think I've ever seen a show dealing with a black family who have jumped class in a single generation," says Locke. "There's a particular set of problems connected with going from that level of poverty to the wealth they go to and most shows aren't concerned with that – you know in Dynasty the sense was that they'd always had money but these characters still have one foot back in the hood, in the ghetto and it's interesting exploring that."

Not everybody has been so happy with Empire's heightened storytelling, however. When the show's trailer was posted on black film site Shadow & Act, online comments complained Daniels was doing the black community a disservice by choosing to tell another story of guns, gangs and hip-hop.

Locke dismisses the complaints. "I hope we've moved to a place where we don't always have to tell stories about the good negro and saintly black people," she says. "If white people can have Tony Soprano and Walter White then why can't we have an equally conflicted, complex leading man? There's something political about letting characters be who they are. Empire may be a soap opera but it's accurate – this is Jay Z's experience, it's the experience of many black folks in our culture. I'm from Houston and Beyoncé's mother used to be my hairdresser and I've seen first hand the way she made this huge jump in class and economic circumstances. These are interesting stories to tell."

They are also stories that are rarely told on primetime US television. Watching Empire, it's striking not just how much fun the cast is having, but how clearly they are having it on their own terms. There are storylines about black masculinity, about black mothers and their sons, and about a music industry that's still largely controlled by white men making money off black music. Yes, Empire harks back to soap opera's 1980s heyday, but it also feels fresh, modern and different to anything else on TV. Nor has Daniels' love of a good boundary-push been diminished by the demands of primetime. "This is cutting-edge stuff," Daniels said. "We're making statements about sexuality, the African-American experience, what happens when you come from extreme poverty and hit it big… and we're doing it with humour."