Empire’s first season was a phenomenon. Viewership grew dramatically week after week, peaking at an astonishing 17.62 million viewers (23.12 post-DVR) for the season finale. It became a ‘water-cooler’ show, reinvigorating the national discussion on race, homosexuality and mental illness. Its stars became overnight celebrities – with Taraji P. Henson winning a Golden Globe – and its soundtrack topping the Billboard 200. But for all its domestic success, Empire failed to make waves outside of the United States. Airing on E4 in the UK it averaged just 717,000 viewers (a mere 3% share) which fell to 595,000 (2.2%) for Season 2. Elsewhere the Fox drama fared even worse, being moved to a smaller network in Australia and being cancelled altogether in Canada. Why is it one of America’s biggest dramas has failed to make an international impact comparable to Game of Thrones or House of Cards?
“almost worth watching for its addictive soundtrack alone”
One reason the show hasn’t entered the British consciousness is due to airing on E4 with little or no fanfare. Advertisers for the C4 spin-off channel made little or no attempt to promote Empire ahead of its UK release, leaving too many potential viewers unaware of its existence. It is worth noting that Breaking Bad initially suffered the same fate in the UK, when 5USA stopped showing episodes of the show after two series. American dramas only tend to successfully cross the pond when on Netflix or Sky Atlantic and with Empire on neither it is easy to see why its British ratings have remained low. Secondly, the show is a thoroughly American experience that makes little or no attempt to play to international audiences. With the plot of the show hinging on control of a hip-hop company, music is at the centre of Empire, an idea which is foreign to UK viewers. Whilst America has produced musical shows such as Glee, Nashville, The Get Down and Star, there is no such equivalent in the UK where the idea of fusing original music and drama has rarely been attempted. Furthermore, the hip-hop element within the show – a genre that has achieved limited mainstream success in the UK charts – only adds to British viewers’ scepticism of the show. With the show containing few actors widely known to British audiences there seems to be no compelling reason for most to take a punt on an unknown show quietly airing on E4, especially during the ‘golden age’ of television.
Despite all these factors, I was one of the few who tuned into Empire’s muted E4 debut. As the very first song (V. Bozeman’s ‘What is Love’) was juxtaposed with Lyon family patriarch and company CEO Lucius (Terrence Howard) being diagnosed with ALS. I was utterly compelled, a sensation that only multiplied when introduced to his sons – Andre (Trai Byers), the business savvy bi-polar sufferer, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), a talented gay singer, and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), an arrogant and spoiled rapper. The plot of Season One saw the Lyon brothers compete to take control of the company before their father’s imminent death, a competition stirred further by the appearance of Lucius’ ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) after seventeen years in jail.
The subsequent twelve episodes represent television at its very best with the emphasis squarely on family, power and music. The dynamic between all five of the main cast is at once tender and explosive, with the show capable of shocking, amusing and upsetting the viewer. Lucius represents a modern-day King Lear committing the sins of the modern world – homophobia, racism and an intolerant attitude towards mental health. And yet at the core of this despicable man is a heart that beats solely for his children and their mother. Watching this flawed man attempt to reconcile his sins and resolve the power conflict between his children before his death is epic television, as is Henson’s conflicted performance as his ex-wife as the pair’s deep bond is slowly revealed.
The show is almost worth watching for its addictive soundtrack alone with Jussie Smollett’s gorgeous voice producing hits such as ‘You’re so Beautiful’ and ‘Good Enough’; whilst guest stars such as Mariah Carey, Jenifer Hudson, and Snoop Dogg deliver memorable acting and musical performances. Now at the end of its third season the quality of Empire may have dipped but it remains one of the most watchable shows going, with Season One still representing the finest series of any show I have ever seen. Empire is compulsive, must-watch viewing, so please dear reader, don’t let the Americans have it all to themselves.