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The Rise and Fall of Empire and Star

What Happened?

By Azaria BrownPublished 3 years ago 11 min read

Empire began airing in January of 2015 and was an instant success. The show was created and directed by Lee Daniels, who also directed Precious and The Butler, and followed a successful family navigating the music. However, Empire came to a screeching halt in April of 2020 and its sister show, STAR, wrapped in May of 2019. So let's talk about Empire and STAR, beginning to end.

SYNOPSIS

Empire follows the Lyon family whose lives revolve around music. Lucious is a rapper, singer, producer, musician and CEO. Hakim is a rapper and eventually baby daddy. Jamal is a singer and musician, and also the main gay character. Andre is not musical (although his actor, Trai Beyers, is a great singer), he’s business oriented and has Bipolar Disorder. Cookie has just served 17 years in jail and she wants to be a part of the family business. After being diagnosed with a life threatening disease, Lucious must pick a successor and he’s awful, so the competition comes to physical blows several times in each season. The show follows them as they make music, plan performances, have sex and slap one another. Basically, chaos ensues.

STAR follows three girls (two of which are sisters) on their rise to stardom. Star is sassy and very street smart, Simone is naive and easily influenced and Alex is a bit stubborn, but is easily the most talented of the three. After Star and Simone escape the foster system and Simones sexually abusive foster father, they move with Alex to Atlanta. They move in with Carlotta, a friend of the sisters' late mother and they actually achieve success rather quickly, though they have several continuous setbacks. The first season follows them as they enter a huge competition that gives them an opportunity to perform at a music festival. The drama on the show branches out and covers four different families instead of one central family, which benefitted the program in the long run.

According to Danny Strong, Empire was partly based on King Lear and The Lion in the Winter. King Lear is about a king and his three daughters. He awards each daughter their inheritance only after they say how much they love him. When his youngest daughter refuses to participate, he disowns her, splits her inheritance among her two sisters and banishes her. The entire family ends up dead by then end, because the play is a tragedy. The Lion in the Winter is about Henry II of England, whose wife has just been released from her ten year imprisonment and their three sons. The show was also based in part on Dynasty, which is understandable since it is a soap opera.

Terrence Howard and Taraji P Henson were the first two cast for Empire. The two had previously worked together on both Hustle and Flow and Four Brothers and this is evident by the great chemistry they have on screen. Hustle and Flow led to an award show performance for Taraji P Henson and served as our first exposure to seeing Terrence Howard as an artist. The rest of the main cast were announced throughout middle and late 2014 and combined people with little to no industry experience and seasoned veterans.

The main cast of STAR was announced in December of 2015 and Queen Latifah was the most notable name among the list.

In order to create music that was realistic, timely and label quality Lee Daniels enlisted the help of Timbaland as the main music producer. He also enlisted the help of songwriters like Ne-Yo, Darkchild and Estger Dean. The music from the first 3 seasons of Empire was released by Colombia Records digitally and physically. The soundtrack for the first season has sold around 500,000 copies to date. STAR had music direction directly from Republic Records.

Empire and STAR differed from musical shows like Glee because they performed original music in realistic settings like performances and studio and song writing sessions. Sometimes, performances would also take place in a character’s mind. Additionally, while the music drives the plot forward, the music and performances can still be enjoyed in isolation.

FAMILY

Family is probably the biggest uniting theme of the two shows and it is probably the one that resonates with the audience the most. My favorite example of this is in episode nine of the first season, where the Lyon sons are in an elevator and Andre is supposedly in the middle of a manic episode. In order to calm him down, his brothers sing “Lean On Me.” This also reappears in the sixth season. Jamal plays in a large venue for the first time because Hakeem did not want to perform the song without him. At the beginning of the series, Hakeem is Lucious favorite son, since Jamal is gay and Andre has Bipolar, but throughout the series he learns to appreciate the individual qualities that each of them bring to the table and Cookie spends the series standing up for them to their father. After Andre kills Anika, Tiana cares for Bella, as if she is her own daughter.

STAR also places an importance on family and, like Empire, contrasts different families. Star stands up for Simone against her foster dad because all they have is one another. When Carlotta goes to prison, Mary cares for her newborn baby with no hesitation. When Mary passes away, Carlotta instinctively begins caring for her two daughters and reopens her home to them when they reappear in her life years later. Much of these two shows depend on the family ties that the characters create.

THE FICKLENESS OF ENTERTAINMENT

These shows really put emphasis on the fickleness of the entertainment industry. Artists have to constantly improve and reinvent themselves on top of the other constant work that they have to do while staying in the good graces of fans and execs. These shows really work hard to portray that. In the thick of their competition, Eva is added to their group, because “exoctic” women are popular. When Big Trouble gets signed to a record label, that is not the end of their battle. They are constantly competing with other artists on the label for an opportunity to shine. On Empire, Tiana has to reroute her entire career when she expresses her pro-life views. When Olivia comes into the picture, Tiana is forced to take a backseat because her voice isn’t as soulful.

NICE THINGS

In Empire, we really get to see black people with nice things. While Lucious and Cookie worked very hard for the Empire legacy, Hakeem and Jamal have grown up with these luxuries their entire lives and Hakeem’s kids will also grow up with them. And I want to remind you that Empire is not only a label, they also have the top streaming service in Empire Xstream. They have beaucoup bucks.

This is contrasted by the characters in STAR. Though Alex is a celebrity kid, we do not see her doing anything lavish. Even after the girls get a record deal, they still live in Carlotta’s house that also doubles as her hair salon. Because they don’t have much, when characters like Hunter and Ayanna come in with their money and influence, they are able to take advantage of these women.

MUSIC

In both of these shows, music is a character in and of itself. It is always established that music is a force that is bigger than the desires of any single character. At the end of the day, the music is what they always come back to and what they always find solace in. Not only is it how they make a living, it is their lifeline.

THE GOOD

The music created for these two shows was great (at least for the first few seasons). The music helped drive the plot forward, but also got several plays and streams and even led to a BET performance. Part of the reason that the music was so good is because they had Timbaland and his team on the payroll. A professional team of award-winning producers and songwriters made it much easier to create good music. STAR had great music as well and I would argue that the music was better on STAR. In addition to Ryan Destiny and Jude Demorest, they also had Luke James, Elijah Kelly, Queen Latifah and Evan Ross (who I didn’t know could sing like that). STAR also seemed to use music less than Empire, saving it for particularly important moments.

These shows took LGBTQ+ visibility seriously. There were several members of the LGBTQ+ community involved in both shows and one of Empire’s episodes even commented on the spectrum of sexuality when Jamal slept with a woman long after coming out as a gay man. Tiana, one of the main women in the show, is bisexual. Both Cotton and Melody are trans actresses and play trans women in their respective shows. While we have a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ+ visibility, Empire and STAR did their part in reflecting the realities and existence of LGBTQ+.

Empire and STAR helped launch the careers of Bryshere Gray, Serayah McNeil, Rhyon Nicole Brown, Ryan Destiny, Trai Beyers, Ajiona Alexus, Jude Demorest and Brittany O’Grady. Similarly, both had a supporting cast and/or cameos by some incredible stars like Alicia Keys, Raven-Symone, Evan Ross, Xzibit, Lenny Kravitz, Naomi Campbell, Kelly Rowland, Brandy, Estelle and Forest Whitaker.

These shows had everything going for them. So...what went wrong?

THE BAD

First, let’s talk about the criticism that came from critics and written reviews.

Throughout the show's run, Empire faced criticism over creating bad portrayals of black people, particularly Cookie's character. Critics found issues with her flashy outfits, her flamboyant attitude, her violent tendencies and how she often "lovingly" referred to her son Jamal with a gay slur on more than one occasion. There are two issues with this criticism. 1. Creating flawed characters that improve themselves overtime, is the point of character development. Throughout the series we see Cookie strive to understand not only her son, but queer people in general. In the very first episode, Cookie beats Hakeem with a broom and drives an even larger rift between them. But throughout the series, they become incredibly close and even start their own label together called Dynasty. 2. The other pieces of her character are realistic for a woman of her age and background. After serving over 15 years in jail, her wardrobe is understandably dated and her behavior is not polished. Why is that shocking? Hitting her sons isn't excusable, but as I mentioned before, physical fights are a huge part of the show. Luscious has punched Hakeem in the face, put Jamal in a trashcan and killed multiple people, Hakeem was shot, Jamal bet the hell out of a man twice his size, Andre and Anika are both murderers. Physical violence is nothing out of the ordinary in this series, so it would be strange for us to expect different of Cookie.

The criticism of STAR was due to the script itself and its use of melodrama and stereotypes. However, soap operas are characterized by their melodrama. In reality, melodrama is what most dramatic series thrive on. It is what keeps the show going.

MUSIC

After the first few seasons of Empire, the music began to take a downturn. It didn’t seem to resonate with audiences or mainstream media as much. Additionally, as they secured more great singers for the show like Mario, Katlynn Simone, Terrell Carter, and Kiandra Richardson, the music had clearly taken a back seat in favor of overused plot points.

STORYLINE

Like other soap operas, Empire had an incredibly repetitive storyline. I couldn’t tell you how many times Hakeem and Tiana broke up or Cookie and Lucious broke up or old love interests tried to sabotage Lucious. STAR was less repetitive, but still had that usual soap opera quality. However, as the show continued the repetitions in the storyline began to get more problematic.

BIPOLAR DISORDER

Andre’s Bipolar Disorder is very important throughout the entire show. They learn that it runs in their family as Lucious’s mother has Bipolar as well. However, the portrayal of Bipolar Disorder in the show is problematic and honestly, inaccurate. I will link more information about Bipolar in the description, but Andre has Bipolar I, which is characterized by manic highs and depressive lows. Throughout the season, it is reinforced that he is on medication that he gets recalibrated several times. However, rather than putting any emphasis on his lows or even his stable moods, the script constantly emphasizes his manic highs and makes him seem like a character that is constantly “crazy.” Lucious’s mother is portrayed the same way. Additionally, we rarely see Andre in therapy, but it is a standard practice to pair medicine and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy when treating Bipolar. Trai Beyers’ acting is excellent as I mentioned before, but even an earnest performance can’t make up for the way that the script continues to trivialize Bipolar Disorder.

ACTING

As seasons continued, it was clear that Taraji P. Henson, Trai Beyers and Jussie Smollett were carrying Empire. Trai Beyers is the best actor in the show in my opinion and he’s a scene stealer; he immediately outshines anyone else in frame. Taraji P Henson was the most interesting and explosive and therefore, the most entertaining to watch. Terrance Howard is a good actor, but he was stuck being nonchalant, angry or fake deep and the script's desire to keep him so one note, limits his entertainment value. Jussie Smollett made the best music and isn’t a half bad actor either. Unfortunately, Smollett’s time on the show was cut short. After creating two police reports, one for a threatening letter mailed to Fox Studios and one regarding two men that yelled homophobic and racial slurs, poured liquid on him and wrapped a noose around his neck, Smollett was indicted for creating a false police report. Smollet was also written out of the final two episodes of the fifth season and written out of the sixth season altogether.

CAST ISSUES

Both Terrance Howard and Bryshere Gray have a documented history of domestic violence and other legal issues. Considering the topics covered in the show (and morals), cast members with violent tendencies, especially against women (Empire's target audience) probably should not be involved. (I will mention that Gray’s domestic violence incident occurred after the series had already wrapped).

RATINGS

Even when we consider everything mentioned previously, the biggest factor that led to the cancellation of both shows was the decrease in ratings. The first season of Empire accrued about 155 million views while the season five, the one that determined the cancellation, accrued 78 million and the final season only accrued around 50 million views. Much of the rating information is not available for STAR, so it is unclear whether or not ratings played a part in it’s cancellation. Despite Lee Daniels’ efforts to get the show picked up by another network, he had no luck.

THE PANDEMIC

The filming of the final season of Empire was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of season six, they teased an explosive ending. However, due to COVID restrictions, they had to get creative with their editing and scrap some of their final episodes.

Some fans of Empire and STAR are still holding out for a renewal or a spinoff. After its cancellation was announced, fans used the hashtag #savestar and created several petitions. In fact, there is a spinoff surrounding Cookie in production and Lee Daniels announced a STAR film in mid-2019. Empire was essentially the black version of Dallas and Dynasty. While they aren’t the highest caliber of television, there is a reason that soap operas persist and continue to be renewed.

tv review

About the Creator

Azaria Brown

25. I'm a writer and illustrator. I like films, television, books, music, politics and being black.

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