The season finale of Fox’s Empire pulled down a ridiculous audience: Something like 17.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the batshit awesome story of a black music mogul (Terrence Howard) and his black family try to fuck, marry or kill each other in various and sundry soap-operatic ways. When you factor in the DVR viewership after the first seven days, that number will climb close to 20 million. Empire is now the most watched TV show on the air, behind The Walking Dead. Empire is a monster.
Much has been made this TV season of the success of ethnic programming: Between Empire, ABC’s Blackish and Fresh of the Boat, and the CW’s Jane the Virgin, it feels like we are entering a brave, new, not-so-homogenous world. Because Hollywood loves success, right? They love making money — so the fact that this kind of programming is resonating with audiences means that we’ll see more of it, right?
Not so fast.
Hollywood does love success, that’s a fact. But in truth, it loves repeatable success. It loves success it can reverse engineer and duplicate. And the success of the 2014-15 TV season is one of specificity. All of these shows work and are resonating with Americans because they have a specific point of view that carries with it an undeniable authenticity. As Vulture pointed out, more African American households watch Empire than watched the Super Bowl. Why? Because for the first time in a long time, it’s a show in which they can see reflections of their own experience. The obsession with appearing masculine (and the rejection of homosexuality), the single-generation rise from the ghetto to the gilded tower, the petty fixation on reputation, the outsized feminine sexuality, the inherent mistrust of White America, the frowning on interracial marriage — all of this draws, in occasionally unfortunate ways, directly from the African-American experience. Executive producers Lee Daniels and Danny Strong have created a show unafraid to have its characters hurl epithets like “nigger” and “faggot” in primetime knowing full well that its audience will reel from the blow and applaud at the bravado.
And, unlike a sitcom about a multigenerational family who has wacky antics week after week, it’s not something you can just repeat. Vision is not something you can call up, like a designated hitter from the dugout. Vision is an outlier and, in traditional Hollywood thinking, you can’t build a business on an outlier.
When Lost blew up in 2004, it was — much like Empire — all anyone could talk about for a season. It was the last great water-cooler show and the first one to capitalize on social media. The lesson Hollywood took from that was not, “Hey, this J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have built something amazing, let’s find more people like them.” It was, “People like shows with big mysteries and obscure conspiracies — questions we may or may not answer.” So we got a stream of shitty knock offs, from Day Break to Day One, The Event to Alcatraz.
Inception was the highest grossing film of 2010 not based on previously existing material — not an adaptation of something or a sequel to something else. It made $825 million worldwide. A crushing success by any measure. Did we see a raft of original, big-budget sci-fi in its wake? No. (For a much deeper analysis of Inception’s Hollywood reception, check out this GQ piece by Mark Harris.)The five years since Christopher Nolan’s dream-heist flick has been marked by the Marvelization of movies. Everyone needs a superheroic universe to spin blockbusters out of. Because that success is repeatable success. You can, and Marvel will, make Avengers movies for the next 20 years without diverging from the plans they drew up after Iron Man. It is a success not borne of specificity, but of universality. Despite the introduction of The Vision in Avengers: The Age of Ultron, there’s no vision at work.
(And we’re not even going to bring Hollywood’s enduring problem with race into the mix, and its inherent bias towards thinking that ethnic success is always an outlier, unless it’s a low-budget success. Post-Boyz in the Hood, studios were happy to crank out hood flick after hood flick, because they were cheap and the audience could be reached relatively cheaply; you don’t have to blanket the U.S. with advertising if the black people live in NYC, LA and Atlanta. But it’s worth noting that 1992’s The Bodyguard — that Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner interracial romance — made $411 million worldwide, and that’s in 1992 dollars. You can count on one hand the number of interracial romances from studios between then and Will Smith’s Focus. Will any network want to turn themselves into the black network, even if it’s lucrative?)
Empire’s rise will have an effect on television, to be sure, but it won’t be the effect it should have. The pilots for TV shows that will get picked up this May for the 2015-2016 TV were written before Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyons donned her first leopard-print cat suit and the pilots are shooting right now. There has been a push towards diverse casting this development season in the wake of Empire but, again, the cast — while amazing — isn’t what makes that show work.
No, the true shadow of Empire will be cast in 2017, when the studios greenlight the scripts that were written after Empire took off. Will the networks look for vision, or simply seek out Black King Lear in An Advertising Firm or Black King Lear Set In A Construction Business? Will studios mistakenly attribute success to the formula or will they recognize the true value of specificity?
Will Hollywood learn the wrong lessons from Empire? Given their track record…yeah, I’m afraid they will.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com.