Empire Boss Talks Show's Success, Dynasty Comparisons, Cookie's Conflict, Gay Slurs and Sons' Secrets

Empire Spoilers

Fox’s Empire is off to a royally great start, tying How to Get Away With Murder as the TV season’s No. 1 debut, building on those numbers in Week 2 and earning props for its casting as well as its depiction of homophobia within the black community. As reward, the freshman drama already has earned a Season 2 pick-up.

TVLine sat down with showrunner Ilene Chaiken (cocreator of The L Word) to survey Empire‘s reign so far, qualify those Dynasty comparisons and preview the conflicts ahead for the Lyon family.

TVLINE | What does already having a Season 2 order allow you to do?
It allows me to know that we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us! It’s so important to all of us to keep up what [creators] Lee [Daniels] and Danny [Strong], and [executive producers] Brian [Grazer] and Francie [Calfo] started. Not that they’re not going to be joining us, but they gave us such a gift with this show, and we are absolutely dedicated to keeping it every bit as fresh and good in a second season — and for many seasons to come.

TVLINE | Storytelling-wise or as far as pacing, do you get to tweak something, knowing that Season 2 awaits?
No, I figured that there was a decent chance that we’d get a second season on this show and we just [wrote] our finale, which we start shooting next week. So, we are doing the best season finale we can. Up until [the pick-up was announced], we were hopeful that we would get to pay off all the great things we’re setting up.

TVLINE | Did you have any kind of a ratings number in your head when the show was about to premiere?
I didn’t, mainly because I’m not good at numbers. [Laughs] But I can safely say that it exceeded my hopes and expectations.

TVLINE | What do you think the show struck the nerve that it did? Do you think the cast’s diversity has a lot to do with it?
Well, I think that people were ready for the diversity. The television audience loves to see something that they haven’t seen before.

TVLINE | As I watched the pilot, I kept thinking: Why had no one yet set a prime time soap opera in the hip-hop industry? It’s so delicious a premise.
It is delicious, and I think that that’s a big part of it. Television works best when it takes the audience some place new, gives them an experience that they’ve never had before and couldn’t have had elsewhere, but that’s also profoundly relatable in so many ways.Empire

TVLINE | When I wrote my review, I debated about referencing Dynasty in the headline because I was like, “I bet Fox doesn’t want to this lofty project with Terrence Howard and Lee Daniels pegged as a ‘soap opera.’” Was there any hesitation about embracing that?
You know, Lee Daniels has no hesitation about it. Lee has always called this his “black Dynasty.” He wants the show to be that. My feeling is: I don’t run from it, I don’t object to it, but I do think that this show is better than those soap operas from that era. And I grew up in that era, I learned at the feet of Aaron Spelling. I worked for Aaron Spelling for many years. But I think that this show has qualities, and importance, and authenticity that those shows didn’t have. They were confections, while there’s a lot of grit and a lot of truth in Empire that feels much more powerful.

TVLINE | Coming out of last week’s episode: How quickly are we going to find out the details of this deal that Cookie (played by Taraji P. Henson) made with the FBI?
I can tell you that we’re going to find out more, to some extent, over the course of the next episode or two. By Episode 5 (airing Feb. 4), you’ll find out more detail.

TVLINE | Is Cookie going to confide her predicament in anybody? Can she?
Well, that’s a big part of the story. And in this upcoming episode, you’ll find out whom she’s confided in. It’s not safe for Cookie to confide in too many people, and that’s a conflict for her. There’s a lot that she has to keep bottled up in order to survive, but it’s what she’s done for 17 years.

TVLINE | Why has Lucious (Terrence Howard) not been warmer to the ex-wife who just returned from a 17-year prison stint, after she took one for the team? What have you not told us yet?
Because he’s a complex man. That to me is not a plot point, it’s a character point. It’s not as if there’s some dark secret. In order to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish, and what they agreed he had to do, he had to shut himself off. He had to do some things that created a divide between them. He did it — and he’ll say it — for the family. He even believes he did it for her, but it hurts [Cookie]. And now she’s back, and he knows that she’s not going to make it easy for him. She’s a complication, to say the least!

TVLINE | What’s been the tricky part about crafting Cookie? I mean, Taraji Is obviously having a ball, and she’s so freaking quotable. But there’s probably a line to not cross….
There is a line. She can deliver every line, always, so the inclination is to go broad, to go for those big moments. But she’s a very real character to all of us, and we do have to check ourselves sometimes….Empire

TVLINE | She can’t always have that “Shut up, Dora!” moment.
Exactly. And so much of that [restraint] is [coming from Taraji], by the way. She and all of the actors know their characters so well, they keep us in check, too. We have a very open collaboration, and they tell us if we’ve gone off the rails — which we do very occasionally.

TVLINE | The show has taken some knocks as far as the bluntness of some of the language directed at Jamal. What’s your point of view on that?
It’s how Lucious speaks. It’s how Cookie speaks. It’s important, most of all, just to be real. That’s who those characters are. These are the things Cookie would say, and it’s useful to know that she can say those words and still be loving and to not mean them.

TVLINE | Right, because you had already established that she, unlike Lucious, is sympathetic to the Jamal situation.
Yes, she loves Jamal and doesn’t judge him or think less of him. And these are words that express who he is in her mind. She doesn’t look at them as a pejorative, and we’d like to be able to portray that.

TVLINE | What is your timeline, as far as keeping Jamal in the closet?
It’s a big story in Season 1. Lee and Danny made clear to me that it was an important story to them to tell and we don’t let it go. We tell it, and we pay it off.

TVLINE | And once he does come out, I can imagine that will have its own complications. It’s not going to be a “Kumbaya” moment.
If and when he comes out, there are going to be people who are really unhappy about it. There are going to be good reactions but also bad reactions, Empireand Lucious isn’t altogether wrong. It has repercussions for Jamal’s career.

TVLINE | Tell me a little something about each of the sons that maybe hasn’t become evident yet.
Andre manages an illness, which came out last week, but the extent to which it defines his life on a day-to-day basis and the profound relationship he has with his wife, as the one person who he really trusts, and who really accepts and acknowledges his illness, is an important story for us. What’s not apparent about Andre and Rhonda is that although they’ve come out of the box as villains….

TVLINE | I was going to say, out of the three sons, he’s the one I’m not rooting for.
Because his behavior is not loveable to begin with. But there’s real love there [with Rhonda], and one of the things that is exciting to discover is that maybe they have the best and most loving relationship of any of the characters in the show.

TVLINE | And Jamal and Hakeem?Empire
I think what’s not evident about Jamal — and what is not evident to him yet — is how tough he is. That he has a cunning and ability to tolerate pain that goes beyond what would be expected of him by anybody else in his family. And Hakeem, he appears to be just the bratty, badly behaved, overly entitled young king, but he’s a real artist. He has a kind of intuitive intelligence that is going to get him some things that he didn’t anticipate.

TVLINE | Lastly, tell me which character we should keep an eye on, that might be a bit under the radar so far?
God, they all are stellar. I’m just so invested in all of them. But as far as maybe being surprising, though you probably have a sense of it, that would be Anika, Lucious’ almost-fiancé. In the early episodes, you don’t know how fierce she is, but she gives Cookie a good run for her money.

TVLINE | So the whole elevator encounter was just the tip of the iceberg with those two?
Oh, yes.

TVLINE | But no Dynasty-style throwdowns in a backyard fountain?
Not quite!

Want more scoop on Empire, or for any other show? Email insideline@tvline.com and your question may be answered via Matt’s Inside Line.

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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32 Comments
  1. Daisy says:

    I am inexplicably super proud of Danny Strong. He has done so much amazing work since Buffy. Who knew that he would (arguably) be the most successful of the Buffy alums? Empire was a real surprise for me. I had no intention of liking it, just watched to see where it would go and was instantly enthralled. Had I known Danny was a part of it I would’ve been less surprised. Good work all. Looking forward to more.

    • dude says:

      Why does every Buffy fan feel the need to harp on the fact that he’s from Buffy every time an article about this show comes out? We get it, the nerdy douche from Buffy moved on to greener pastures. I love Buffy just as much as the next guy but enough’s enough. He created the show, that’s awesome but he’s not the showrunner. He likely has little to do with the direction of the show moving forward so let’s maybe not credit all of its success to him?

      • Daisy says:

        He’s an Emmy Award winning writer. I didn’t credit him with all of the show’s success but as one of the writers he has significant influence and has writing credits for several upcoming episodes. My admiration remains unchanged despite your inexplicable ire. Maybe take it down a notch.

      • Et al says:

        Nicholas Brendon? Is that you?

    • ninamags says:

      OMG! Is that who Danny Strong is? From Buffy??? I just now realize and put a face to the name. Wow!!

      Fantastic. Another reason to love this show.

  2. D. says:

    This show is good but they are leaning heavily on sterotypes

    • dude says:

      What do you expect when you have a show about the hip hop community created by a white guy who I doubt even listens to hip hop?

      • Daisy says:

        And the other writer (Lee Daniels) is decidedly NOT white.

      • TigerLIL says:

        Yeah the hip hop community has been co-ops by the Strongs of the world since its inception with Simmons and Ruben so no shocker here. They know exactly how to make money off any culture and as far as the stereotypes, kinda depends on your experience I can see elements of real people I encountered growing up so I don’t consider him too heavy handed for TV plus it’s entertainment not exactly a documentary on hip-hop culture just a depiction kinda… JMO I certain respects your too D….

  3. Steven says:

    “Why had no one yet set a prime time soap opera in the hip-hop industry?” They did. it was called Platinum on UPN back in 2003. It didn’t last long though.

  4. Steven says:

    And I wonder if it was a reference to Taraji’s role on Person of Interest that the Agent she’s working with’s name is Carter.

  5. herman1959 says:

    Cookie uses of epithets and generally aggressive language seems understandable considering she had been incarcerated for the last 17 years. That said, going forward, I would expect her to adjust (somewhat) to her new environment and tone herself down in public, at least. I do find a lot of the language and attitudes realistic, but extremely offensive, but I’m trying to hang with the show a while to see where it goes.
    Also, FYI: Jamal is not “off his meds” as some posters stated earlier. His current medication dosage is no longer working for him, so it needs to be adjusted. This is part of the responsibility of managing a mental illness, and this is what his wife was trying to say.

    • herman1959 says:

      *Cookie’s use of epithets…*

    • Jane says:

      OK I get the explanation for the language but can someone explain to me why she dresses like a cheap pimp while everyone else dresses so nicely?

      • herman1959 says:

        The same explanation applies – she’s still stuck in her world of 17 years ago. Remember when her son asked what she was wearing when she returned and she said “what I was locked up in”? Hopefully, some wardrobe adjustments are to follow.

      • ninamags says:

        I doubt a “cheap pimp” would be able to afford the fur coats that she has been wearing. Her outfits might have been the height of fashion before she was sent away. She might tone down her outfits later on, but I love how she dresses. Fierce and intimidating and looking every bit like a woman who knows what she is doing.

        • TigerLIL says:

          I’m going to dido you ninamags and on that note she will dress to impress soon but that’s going to take a minute. She is an incredible character and let me say this if you have ever observed the streets and know the colorful world of the street players she is not out of place they don’t follow trends they set them. Now the corporate world just a hair line different but she hasn’t been there yet, she is not emerged in the business world just yet. If Cookie is going to be identifiable she has to be that way she is in the natural to be most identifiable. I think her fashion will evolve once she calms down her anger and realize she doesn’t have to compete with her ex-husband or his girlfriend. She is actually holding all the cards. What Loucious has done using a street smart girl from the neighborhood to get his cred and build off her idea then abandoning her leaving her behind to pick up another chick to polish his corporate image with his so call “bourgeoisie” girl is common place and usually all game. He gonna find out he ain’t switch games he just switched players. I have witness that scene on too many occasions and it is what it is. The fact that she has failed to peel his dome is the greatest testament of Cookies love for Louscious to me. I hope she flat lines him and I mean feds him and puts him in a cell so he can get a dose of those meds for he leaves the flick… that dude is a complete jerk…lol

  6. Tim says:

    I think the acting of the two younger sons is suspect sometimes. Hope they improve.

  7. Alex M says:

    My one hope is they don’t dumb down the language on this show. It’s part of what is so thrilling and gritty and real about the characters and the language definitely plays a part in my enjoyment of the show.I’m saying this as a gay man and yeah, it stings watching the language and even some of the flashbacks, but it’s honest. It happens every day off the screen.

  8. sarah j says:

    I do enjoy this show. However I do not like Hakeem.

  9. TigerLIL says:

    I think they are doing a nice job of developing the story line and character but you know its going to be hard to pull for anybody more so than Cookie and you can tell by the family dynamics that all of them are going to suffer from emotional problems money will have no cure for. This show keeps me cracking up because I declare in every episode so far I have seen some character I grew up with come out. Congrats on season two should be just as amazing its a lot of back story to a saga lasting as long as that did….lol

  10. Larry says:

    I don’t mind Andre as much better than Hakeem

  11. TAL says:

    Reblogged this on Cerulean Chronicle and commented:
    Attention ‘Empire’ fans! The following is an interview with ‘Empire’ showrunner, Ilene Chaiken, courtesy of TVLine. Enjoy!

  12. Gary Bebout says:

    Why isn’t Andre’s illness acknowledged as bipolar disorder. How does it manifest itself? Is it believable?

  13. FacingNow says:

    Looks like the question is–will be seeing the trendy “bipolar” of today’s TV commercials, or something resembling the true condition? I’m trusting that it will play out in a realistic way as the show progresses. This show appears to be a hit in the making. Being both gay and bipolar I’ve never felt so relevant.

  14. Truth be told says:

    The show is very good. The attire for a woman who served 17 years in prison is appropriate. Time has stopped for her on the inside. Continue to write a fantastic show just as it is. The language and clothing is appropriate because it suppose to show realism not politically correctness. I am sorry it was not on cable so that it could be more grittier. Before someone addresses the gay political correctness, Lee Daniels is a happily married gay man who happens to be a talented writer and director.

  15. TigerLIL says:

    I really like the show, I’m left cracking up after every episode. Its so funny cause I grew up with the Cookie character and from the time I really became aware of that person’s persona I was like OMG. Because she was in the family I had a chance to really observe that pure nuttiness on the daily. I mean from the dress to the mess she was a character. The other characters are some what identifiable to me especially Jamal. I watched a family member have to deal with the same situation as Jamal and he was incidentally an aspiring singer too.

    But more than any of the drama I have found a lot of teaching moments from the backdrop business aspect of the show. Company ownership, Board of Directors, Cookie’s threat of going to the SEC to disclose the illegal venture capital to launch the business that could derail the application process if exposed. And Cookie hostile takeover so to speak…lol The IPO, the Valuation of the company assets that the oldest brother was making notes of, marketing aspects in terms of the potential damage to Jamal’s career (sexual preference) and how that could even impact Lucious club branding, and the public relations night mare of Hakeem club shenanigans and the Kid 44 controversial lyrics.

    Even the studio scene had teaching moments as we learn the company key position such as A&R (artist and repertoire) recording engineer and music producers role as well as the artist management and how these two positions A&R and Artist management impact the artists success.

    So while others are crying the blues about this show drug dealing back drop and the subjects being too hot for TV and that the show is exploiting stereo types of certain communities and such, I find a way to teach. I can’t stop my high school students from watching the show so I engage them into taking a deeper look at the business, marketing, branding, public relations and executive positions within the business structure the show represents and make them learn those aspects of the show to re-direct their focus. You can learn something positive from anything as there is always a seed of advantage in every adversity…JMO

  16. I think you were born for this role you have also mastered other roles bur you absolutely blow life into mr lyons.I saw you on Wendy Williams you said that because of a weight issue they had thought about replacing you that would be a huge mistake you are Mister Empire Congratulations