Dressed to thrill, the family saga Empire sings from the same song sheet as the fabulously over-the-top prime-time dramas of the 1980s.

By Helen Razer.

TV’s new prime-time soap opera ‘Empire’

Empire figureheads Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard).
Empire figureheads Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) and Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard).

In this story

The market deregulation begun in the 1980s did not turn out well. But for every financial instrument lost to us, we gained a great cultural asset. This was the decade that brought us the pleasure of the glossy prime-time soap, and who among us would trade the vision of a Dynasty-era Joan Collins for a stable fiscal present? Well, everyone, probably. But, absurd equivalence aside, Collins’ Alexis Carrington, wearing the cream blush of 20 women and the power of 50 Machiavellis, was fabulous.

Prime-time soaps existed before fabulous ’80s hits such as Dynasty, Dallas and Falcon Crest, whose matriarch, played by talkies-era movie star and former wife of Ronald Reagan Jane Wyman, gave Alexis a run for her dirty ’80s money. These forerunners, such as the long-running American serial Peyton Place and our own Number 96 – a program that offered us television’s first happy gay protagonist – tended to be a little down-at-heel. Naturalism informed the evening soap and audiences were offered, even within preposterous arcs, the chance to “relate” to “issues”. But by the 1980s, all realistic bets were off.

Dynasty, Knots Landing and Dallas, with their homicidal oil baron families, were not at all aspirational dramas. Falcon Crest was not intended to make us covet life as it was luxuriously lived inside a high-end vineyard. These were bad people who did bad things in marvellous clothes, and if there was anything within these storylines with which we could sympathise, it was only the desire to murder. This television never said, “This is real life”. It just said, “This is what your id would look like if it were dressed in a Bill Blass gown”.

We can remember the ’80s as the “greed is good” decade, and certainly, the too-big-to-bail problems we now face were kickstarted in this policy climate. But, as Joan and Jane and all the inimitably camp ladies of the period have it, television still supposed that greed was bad. Nouveau riche strumpets slapped each other silly with Pierre Cardin leather goods, and we saw that money only brings with it death and some very good teeth.

Of course, you could make the argument that such parables about rich, cold bitches function to warm the poor with the fiction of their moral wealth. But that would be a bit boring and it would also discount the fact that glossy, greedy soaps, which ended with Aaron Spelling’s marvellous Melrose Place, are, quite often intentionally, hilarious. Give me Kimberly, emerged from her coma, pulling off a high-end wig to reveal a scar that shrieks “lobotomy” over the coyly aspirational language and taupe sweaters of Dawson’s Creek any day. Self-aware avarice is so much more fun to watch than the muted kind.

For years, we’ve endured prestige dramas. Of course, certain of these, such as Breaking Bad or Six Feet Under or Mad Men, are nothing less than gorgeous, extended cinema. I would rather lose a digit than HBO. But many of the network attempts at quality are really just a crap stab at bashful aspiration. The triumphal liberalism of The West Wing is, honestly, not as good as you remember. The sheen of “educated woman” that coats local show Offspring is insufficient to smother its middle-class pong. Dramedy Ally McBeal really should have ended in the incarceration of David E. Kelley, who’d already given the bourgeoisie false evidence of its nose for quality with Chicago Hope and Picket Fences.

These are horrible shows full of self-denying aspiration and characters I would really like to see Alexis kill. It’s been far too long since high-end candy was out and proud and dressed to actually kill. So, thank goodness for the death of false realism and the rebirth of the true prime-time soap with Empire.

Currently showing on Network Ten (Eleven), with little delay from its American home at Fox, this family saga is very expensively dressed. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the show’s Alexis, wears raptor-tight Gucci feathers while protesting the innocence of her hip-hop impresario ex-husband, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who prefers ascots and scarves when he’s not in an orange jumpsuit on a murder rap. Their bad-boy rapper son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) wears Moschino samples and Becky (Gabourey Sidibe, best known for Precious) looks like a custom box of macarons tied up in a bow we could never afford.

This, in short, is the best gig in TV wardrobe since Carrie Bradshaw was last wrapped up in couture. Just as in Sex and the City, the clothes are central and, in fact, even more critical in this case. The extreme dandyism plays to an audience whose cultural preferences have rarely been considered mainstream. Empire is as fabulously bad as the very worst episode of Dynasty, but it’s fabulously good at making it seem as though African Americans – long the best-dressed class of people in the United States – have been starring in soaps forever.

Broadly speaking, African Americans have had primacy in TV entertainment only as the objects of laughter or of police brutality. This is not to say that The Cosby Show or The Wire were not very good television – they were. It is, however, to say that it is kind of relaxing to see a bunch of black actors who are not required to function either as role models or cautionary tales. Empire is like the fluffy flip side to the Black Lives Matter movement of the present. Here, black lives matter every bit as much as Carrington lives matter. Which is to say, only for one dazzling, openly unrealistic hour a week.

It feels almost groundbreaking that no one in this cast is required to be groundbreaking. Of course, it’s not, but, darn, if it isn’t great fun to experience the novelty of African-American characters not seeming like a novelty. This show, performed and designed in the best Aaron Spelling tradition, feels like it has been around forever. Anyone with a taste, like me, for camp can watch just a few minutes and feel familiar with its form. Everyone is bad and everyone is mean and everyone has a wardrobe allowance roughly the size of the Portuguese national debt. It feels great to see unabashed, slickly produced schlock drama again and it feels great, if only for an hour, to believe that America does not continue to consign a large class of people to poverty but rewards them instead with Gucci.

This, of course, is naive media-effects thinking. Changing the face of television does not change the face of a nation and we can be certain that a top-10 network show largely written and performed by African Americans has made about as much real difference to real lives as a black president. Which is to say, none. Still, the morally impoverished, materially rich and fictional world of Empire is clearly intended to offer us escape. The extra element of post-racist fantasy is little more, here, than a great bonus. Having said that, writers do embed moments of radical history into an otherwise radically soapy luxury tub.

To say that Empire is more worthy than its very agreeable precursors, such as Dynasty, because it has a predominantly black cast is to say that the fact of race alone is a guarantee of worth. To call these cast members or their creators brave or noble for making high-end kitsch is something very close to racism. But, the fact is, the show itself is a bit more worthy than the best of Spelling. Part of its worth emerges from the wardrobe department – this meticulous love of style and of an often jarring concatenation of style is rarely otherwise seen on TV. This is the infinitely extendable language of black dandyism talking. Part of its worth is in the soundtrack which, to my ears at least, is a heck of a lot better and bolder than that from Glee. And part of it comes from little history bombs.

Once an episode or so, we’ll hear a reference to Black Power, to conditions of the Jim Crow system and even, uncritically, to Nation of Islam. Moments of rebellion and oppression are linked to the present in such a way that any soap fan could learn that there’s a reason, for example, for such disproportionate incarceration rates of African Americans.

And then, Lucious drops a joint from the joint or Hakeem disgraces himself with an R’n’B star or Cookie plays one son off against the other while wearing Dolce & Gabbana and struggling to conceal another improbable murder.

There is little that is real about Empire itself, but its detonations in the field of white history are as real as they are brief. We’re not talking Frantz Fanon, here. We’re not even talking Alex Haley. I mean, if you want a history of radical black America, read a book. Don’t expect Mr Murdoch’s network to deliver a DIY guide to humanist revolution. Nonetheless, a legacy of organised rebellion is as reliably present here as is a visual history of sharp dress.

For those of us who value such history, these moments are simply gratifying. For those of us who are determined to simply escape, these moments may be easily overlooked. Whatever our level of interest in them, these moments are unlikely to disturb present reality. But, my goodness, I can’t remember the last time I heard Malcolm X mentioned even on a “quality” network documentary and the fact that this very important name is uttered somewhere means it may not be forgotten.

And it means that Empire is not exactly like all of the other end-of-history tripe we see on TV drama. In the idealised liberal oval office of The West Wing or the cross-gender lavatory of Ally McBeal or the urban pub interiors of Offspring, all we have is a fatally diminished space-time crawling up its own bum-hole. There is no history in this bourgeois palaver. There is no past and no future and all we can see is a perfected vision of nice people with good intentions and middle-sized problems. Empire, at least, has the decency to dress itself openly in the expensive clothes of the present while turning, however briefly, to the wealth and to the debt of history.


1 . Arts Diary

THEATRE A Rabbit for Kim Jong-Il

SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, Until November 21

VISUAL ART DeMonstrable

Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, Perth, until December 5

MUSICAL Mendelssohn’s Dream

Adelaide Town Hall, October 16-17

VISUAL ART Punuku Tjukurpa

Canberra Museum and Gallery, until November 29

MULTIMEDIA Niclas Mangan: Other Currents

Artspace, Sydney, until November 1

Last chance

VISUAL ART Nauru Diary: Impressions of an Island

Janet Clayton Gallery, Paddington, until November 1

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 10, 2015 as "Hip gloss".

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Helen Razer is a writer and broadcaster. She is The Saturday Paper’s television critic and gardening columnist.

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