Emily Yahr (c) 2015, The Washington Post. “Empire,” Fox’s new drama starring Terrence Howard as a hip-hop mogul and Taraji P. Henson as his ex-wife and competitor, is looking like a potential triumph for the network: About 10 million people tuned in the premiere on Wednesday night. According to Entertainment Weekly, that figure ties “How to Get Away With Murder” as the most-watched freshman show debut of the season.
While the numbers may have gotten a bump with the premiere of “American Idol,” it’s still a big win for the TV musical genre. Music-themed shows used to be all the rage, mostly due to the red-hot popularity of “Glee,” but the category has cooled off dramatically: “Smash” was canceled, while “Nashville” is quickly fading.
Now, “Empire” shows there’s still an appetite for a musical series — though as we have seen time and time again, it’s easy for this kind of show to go awry. Here are some ways that “Empire” (executive produced by “The Butler” team of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong) can avoid the pitfalls that turn a great singing series into an unwatchable one:
– Keep music a priority.
Seems easy, right? So many times, unfortunately, the songs seem like an afterthought as the writers prefer to concentrate on ridiculous drama. “Empire” — which also hopes for a boost by selling the show’s soundtrack on iTunes — has some catchy songs already from music executive producer Timabland, and should stick with them instead of drowning in too many soap-opera story lines.
– Try to get the music executives to stick around as long as possible.
Speaking of Timbaland, producers should urge him to stick around for awhile, as he’s proven he knows what will stick. One of the biggest blows to “Nashville” was when superstar producer T. Bone Burnett (and husband of the show’s creator, Callie Khouri) left after Season 1. While some songs remained pretty solid, the overall quality notably suffered.
– Don’t introduce too many side characters and plot lines.
We cannot overemphasize how important this is. “Nashville” started a downward spiral in its third season by introducing all kinds of indistinguishable, tertiary characters (sorry, Gunnar’s ex-girlfriend-who-lied-about-having-his-baby, we just cannot begin to care about you). It distracted from the main arc of the story, and the show is now shedding viewers in the process.
“Empire” seems similarly at risk of sprawling all over the place, as viewers already have to keep track of a large number of plot lines: Lucious Lyon (Howard) trying to run his label while grappling with a terminal illness; his ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) getting out of jail; the battle among his three sons, Andre, Jamal and Hakeem, who all want to run the company; competition between Jamal and Hakeem’s albums; Cookie managing Jamal’s career; Lucious shooting his best friend at the end of the episode. And so on. While all of those stories could go somewhere, on other shows such plots have wound up detracting from the music and making everything more complicated.
– Don’t over-explain the song significance.
During a big scene in the “Empire” pilot, Jamal — a talented singer whose homophobic father has never accepted him — sings a song in the club called “Good Enough.” Cue the multiple flashbacks of Lucious doing horrible things, such as punishing little Jamal for trying on his mom’s high heels by dumping him in a trashcan. Obviously, the song was inspired by that sort of trauma, but it’s much more powerful than when the show lets the music speak for itself.
– Actually share secrets about the music industry.
Some of the most fascinating scenes on “Nashville” have to do with insider details about the music biz, and the boardroom scenes on “Empire” had a lot of promise as well. For some reason, the “Nashville” writers have drifted away from those kind of scenes. But part of the fun of music shows is getting a look into the gritty details of the industry, and writers could take advantage of that.