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‘Empire’ is – literally – phenomenal

Jeff Simon

Snoop Dogg will be there. So will Jennifer Hudson and Patti LaBelle. I’ll be there too, only out here as one of the many millions in the couch potato contingent.

Let me suggest you might want to be there when the first season finale of “Empire” airs on Fox at 8 p.m. Wednesday

Hype has admittedly become the most important art form – usually the most creative too – in American media but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t genuine mass phenomena among the hype balloons that are poised to pop or just float away.

“Empire” has been a genuine TV phenomenon. Dumbfounded TV experts have watched the show do something said to be unprecedented: increase in audience size in each successive week it has been on.

Those of us congregated in front of the glassed-in offices of Empire Records last week were put at 14.7 million people, a nice juicy number which only italicized the ratings juggernaut it has been from the beginning.

I usually find ratings as boring as many people do. Television popularity is a drearily predictable and empty a thing in the same way that weekend movie box office numbers are. It’s only when Meaning, with a capital M, is attached that it deserves our attention.

Just as the atom-smashing ratings of “All in the Family” were meaningful and pivotal once upon a time, so is the amazing progressive weekly audience for “Empire” now. Not many things on TV are phenomenal – literally.

You needn’t worry if you’ve never seen the show before turning into the first season finale Wednesday. You can certainly catch up in all the appointed ways in the 21st century but, most importantly, you’ll be able to get the hang of things very quickly even if you just barge in to the finale for your maiden voyage into the stormy family of record mogul Lucious (who has ALS and is played by Terence Howard.) All you need to know is that there are three sons competing to be his successors as well as his ex-wife Cookie, who spent 17 years in the joint for activities in the drug trade. It was Cookie who, in fact, provided the crucial $400,000 in seed money for Empire Records to get into business way back when Bill Clinton was president.

Think of it as a hip-hop translation of Berry Gordy meets King Lear with “Dynasty” seasoning.

Which is another way of saying that, even at its worst, “Empire” is five times as much fun as “Dynasty” or “Dallas” ever were.

You would have had to work hard to remove yourself from the large, often squalid circus tent of American popular culture that you haven’t heard of what Taraji P. Henson has been doing in her weekly role as Cookie on “Empire.”

Never mind whether such instant hegemony and cosmic-sized ego would be likely from a woman who had spent 17 years suffering the ego deprivations and regimentation of a prison sentence. “Empire” is in the street fantasy business, not the reality business.

The key word, though, is “street.” That’s why the show’s signature moments are when the most melodramatic and lurid pieces of naturalism are temporarily set aside so that people in this musical family can indulge in a few moments of song.

It’s especially outrageous when the family itself is squabbling or suffering or calculating its own rating on the dysfunction meter and then everyone comes together to sing a bygone fictional hit of the record label’s yesteryear.

It’s at that point when “Empire” turns into a high-gloss, thug-filled TV version of an old MGM backyard musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – you know, those things where all the complications of life were met with “Let’s put on a show!”

For all the melodramatic excess and peril, that is the joyful message of “Empire.” It is why it had the genius to rehabilitate Courtney Love in one episode and why creator Lee Daniels has promised appearances by Common and, of course, his pal Oprah Winfrey next season.

What Daniels and many others have said about the brain-boggling success of “Empire” is that it is conclusive proof just how important minority audiences are in the 21st century. Diversity, they say, is no longer a clever move for TV’s always-backward executive classes; it is a commandment.

While I wouldn’t argue the basic tenet of that, what I find so remarkable about “Empire” is its continuation of what has been an American cultural commonplace since ragtime.

In Martha Bayles’ brilliant “A Hole in Our Soul,” she flat out declares “All European rhythm, even the liveliest Baroque beat, sounds mechanical compared with Afro-American rhythm. As one European explained on first hearing the tricky syncopations of ragtime, ‘It has the power and penetration to inject life into a mummy.’ ”

And that, I submit, is how white American culture has used African-American culture in general since it “discovered” that life in African-American music. It is black culture that white culture always seeks to escape – or at least retard – the process of mummification.

It is what it looked for to marry rockabilly and create rock ’n’ roll so that American popular music of the 1950s could be saved from Mitch Miller and Patti Page. It is what afternoon TV audiences sought in Oprah Winfrey to inject soul into the accelerating political stridency of Phil Donahue. And it is what much of America sought in Barack Obama after Oprah introduced him to us.

Put it this way: “Nashville” is nice but it is clearly evanescent television. “Empire” is a star-spangled post-Oprah phenomenon which is, along with so much current TV (see “Scandal,” and “How To Get Away With Murder”) literally changing the complexion of prime-time drama.

But not, I’d argue, exclusively because of recognition of the growing power of minority audiences. That’s true but it’s also simplistic. It is the pervasive perception of creeping mummification from which white audiences are seeking relief.

Consider, for proof, the career of Henson, who plays Cookie, the, breakout delight of “Empire.” She is 45 years old. We have literally spent decades watching her administer small injections of life into movies such as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and TV shows such as “Person of Interest.”

And now we have her exploding weekly on “Empire,” a one-woman assault on any creeping mummification that could possibly set in on Wednesday night prime time on the Fox network.

Forget the numbers. It’s the meaning of the numbers that matters. And if you want to understand the meaning of “Empire’s” amazing national numbers, watch Henson’s performance Wednesday night.


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