Black musical series makes TV history

By Quinton J. Hobson

Lee Daniels, creator of Empire, right, with star Terrence Howard.
Lee Daniels, creator of Empire, right, with star Terrence Howard.

Unless one counts the numerous sitcoms and movies written, directed, produced by and starring comedy tycoon Tyler Perry (the Madea movies, Meet the Browns), which continue to garner heavy rotation on BET, one would agree the Black demographic remains considerably lacking within the world of scripted television.

Black actors are regularly confined to roles as guest stars and recurring characters on shows that have already been established – the ones where the main character has that one Black friend, usually depicted as a funny but over-the-top character whose role rarely expands beyond  providing comic relief.

But it’s not like it hasn’t been tried; several writers have attempted to combat this by creating new shows that feature largely Black casts, usually African-American families dealing with typical African-American issues. Although some have proved more successful than others, few have defeated the curse of being canceled after only one or two seasons, if even so lucky, therefore failing to make as lasting an impression as their contemporaries.

Interestingly, in recent years other demographics and minorities which previously fought hard alongside Blacks for TV representation, appear to be taking small but significant steps towards success. For women, comedienne Tina Fey established herself as an entertainment honcho by creating and starring in her own show, combatting a male-dominated medium. Just within the past year, Latina Gina Rodriquez won a Golden Globe for her role in Jane the Virgin, while Cristela became the first Latina to write and star in her own series.

So then what is the current scripted TV ambassador for the Black community?  The answer may be Empire.

Created by director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler) and Danny Strong, the premise of Empire revolves around a former drug dealer-turned-music mogul who, upon being diagnosed with ALS, is suddenly forced to decide which of his three sons will inherit Empire Entertainment, a successful hip hop music company.

Last week, Empire, which premiered in January to immediate critical acclaim and impressive viewership, aired the final episode of its inaugural season to record-breaking ratings and reigns supreme among TV’s most-watched programs.

Not since the days of The Cosby Show, which is credited with challenging racial stereotypes by presenting audiences with an educated, financially stable African-American family in the 1980s and 1990s, has a series starring a Black cast made such a profound impact on television, and so quickly.

Even some of history’s most successful series took at least two or three seasons to establish a devoted following but in an age where shows seldom survive that long, Empire appears to have already conquered this, becoming the first scripted series in 23 years to experience an increase in weekly viewership with each episode aired, described by Entertainment Weekly as “an increasingly rare feat.”

The show’s unprecedented success can be attributed to the way in which the writers treat its plot and characters by incorporating several relatable topics at once, tackling marriage, divorce and drug abuse – each tentatively approached in Black TV series before, but usually for the purpose of comedy as opposed to character or plot development, and in this case with an ensemble of wealthy, accomplished Black characters as opposed to a struggling middle-class family.

Creator Daniels conquered another hurdle by having the show air on Fox, which naturally exposed the series to a wider, more diverse demographic than would have BET (Black Entertainment Television).

Although the show continues to garner raves, it premiered too late to be considered for this year’s awards season, barely missing eligibility for the Golden Globes. So we’ll have to give the show until next year to see if this time we’ll be taking home any gold.