What if Fox’s Ratings Smash was Set in the Past…
Fox’s new hit hip-hop drama Empire is the latest ratings powerhouse on television. Two weeks in and it’s already surpassed expectations, coming only second to ABC’sHow to Get Away With Murder’s. It’s Fox’s biggest new show debut in three years and has captivated TVs and Twitter timelines on Wednesday nights. While the success of this mostly-black cast show is brilliant to see, there remains a disparaging air.
Of course there are apparent flaws for any new show. Writing and plot development takes a minute to take shape. But something beneath critics’ apparent love/hate relationship with the soapy-melodramatic peaks and valleys irks me personally. The show is intended to be set in the now, with mentions of Trayvon Martin and a ridiculous Dora the Explorer reference. Yet, everything about the show – from the fashion to the themes – feel dated. It’s as if Lee Daniels cropped moments of black music history from the last five decades, scrapbooked his findings on a vision board/Pinterest, and viola – Empire.
Cookie is released from a twenty-year jail stint, making her year of lockup roughly round 1995. However she leaves prison dressed like Jackie Washington in “Coco’s Revenge.” Cousin Bunkie is threaded like a Fat Boy, Lucious looks like Big Red’s doo wop assistant and Becky gives 60s mod tease. I don’t know whether to do the Nae Nae, Cabbage patch, or the mashed potatoes. In addition to the setting, the strongest narrative – Jamal’s battle for sexual liberation – feels foreign. Homophobia in hip hop and society in general has not been cured, but the rumbles of artists in just the last few years make the staunch oppression from Lucious hard to believe.
This time conundrum sparked an epiphany in my mind: what if Empire was set in the past. Rather than 2015 set the scene in the early 80s. Disco is dead and Reaganomics is beginning to shape the decline of the inner city. A collective generation is aching to be heard, and the only way to express the shifts it’s experiencing is hip-hop. Empire could be the story of the birth of hip-hop.
Remember NBC’s American Dreams? The drama reimagined the 1960s through the eyes of a typical family. Music was just as important a character as the cast. Now picture Lucious Lyon ditching his disco bell bottoms and taking a chance on this new sound from the boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx. The possibilities are endless. Of course the family drama would be mostly original, but music and social commentary could be factual. Russell Simmons could executive produce for historical accuracy. Artists could appear as hip hop legends, much like they did on Dreams. That’s a story specific to the black experience that has never been told in that nature.
While I’m sure Empire will continue bringing in good ratings, and possibly accolades for Taraji P. Henson, I can’t help but feel we settled for something good when it could be great. Only time will tell.