Admit it: You love Empire. You’ve tweeted about Empire. And likely you’ve quoted Empire or, more specifically, Cookie Lyon. You’re not alone. Thanks to record ratings, soapy plots, and a sterling cast, Empire has become the television story of 2015.
In this week’s cover story, EW spends 48 hours on the wild Chicago set for the final days of shooting season one, including witnessing an epic catfight, the cast dancing to the Fame theme, and star Terrence Howard in a cape (it’s complicated). Created by Danny Strong and Lee Daniels, with music by megaproducer Timbaland, the show tells the story of Lucious Lyon (Howard), an ALS-stricken music CEO who struggles to choose one of his three sons as his replacement while dealing with his ex-con ex-wife, Cookie. It’s campy, provocative, moving, and exhilarating—sometimes all in the same scene. “There’s just this emotional narcotic that lives inside this show that makes people go, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen next?’ ” says executive producer Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind).
That might explain why Empire’s ratings have had almost unheard-of growth week after week: The show, which airs at 9 p.m. on Wednesdays, now averages 14.5 million total viewers and is the top-rated new show in the 18-49 demo. It’s also a pivotal rebuilding block for its network, Fox, which has been in fourth place this season.
“To stick out [on TV] there has to be a high degree of showmanship, and that is what is going on with Empire,” says Dana Walden, who, along with her 20th Century Fox Television co-chair Gary Newman, took the reins of Fox’s TV group in August. “It has this phenomenal cast led by two Oscar-nominated actors. It’s got the music.” But even Walden says, “I don’t think anyone could have predicted this level of success for the show.”
Alongside Black-ish, Fresh Off the Boat, and the Viola Davis-led How to Get Away With Murder, Empire is squashing the notion that a minority-led cast means a smaller audience for a network show. “I definitely think it’s going to change things,” says Grazer.
“You hear people talking about it. It just opens up the vision of decision-makers,” Daniels adds. “Finally there’s so many African-American experiences that can be seen and viewed by everybody. It’s nice to be there, really, at the epicenter of it all.”
With so much attention and immediate success, Empire’s patriarch is determined not to be dethroned. “I thought it would take a couple years [to be a hit] and maybe get a little peak and then come back down,” Howard admits. “I didn’t know it would jump off from there. But now that such a huge audience has joined in to the dance and are following, I feel so responsible to keep them there.”
Also in this issue: EW’s exclusive peek behind this year’s Academy Awards including candid photographs, on-the-scene reporting, and answers to all your burning questions.