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In My Words: 'Empire' and the Lyons are the new modern family

FOX's "Empire," one of 2015's most popular new television programs, is setting Hollywood records for audience growth, and Associate Professor Naeemah Clark writes in a column for regional newspapers about some of the reasons behind its success.

The following column appeared recently in the (Greensboro, N.C.) News & Record, the Winston-Salem Journal and the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the author and not Elon University.

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Associate Professor Naeemah Clark

'Empire' and the Lyons are the new modern family
By Naeemah Clark - nclark3@elon.edu / @NaeemahC on Twitter

FOX’s “Empire” has created a stir on Wednesday nights and chatter on Thursday mornings. The sparkly, funky soap looks at the dazzlingly turbulent life of music industry mogul Lucious Lyon and the search for a worthy successor in his bloodline.

In short, he’s Jay-Z meets JR.

While this type of storyline has long made for compelling TV, in addition to Terrence Howard’s performance as Lucious, viewers also have been buzzing about Taraji P. Henson’s scene-stealing turn as the ex-con matriarch of the family, Cookie Lyon, and the instantly viral moments of the show that have ignited on social media.

The program debuted in early January with strong ratings and viewership has increased with each subsequent airing. On a recent episode, more than 10 million viewers tuned in to see the Lyons sit down to dinner at Lucious’ mansion.

Gathered around the dinner table were Lucious, his girlfriend Anika, ex-wife Cookie, rapper son Hakeem, his Rhianna-ish starlet girlfriend, accountant son Andre, his blonde bib-wearing wife Rhonda, and crooner son Jamal with his partner Michael Sanchez.

As the camera panned around the table it became clear that 9 p.m. on Wednesday has been visited by a new “Modern Family.” While the Dunphys and Pritchetts are enjoying their fun-filled, upper-middle class suburban diversity over on ABC, the Lyons represent another type of family on FOX.

Similar to the plotlines on “Modern Family,” “Empire” weaves together issues related to race, gender and sexual orientation with stories about money, child rearing and communication breakdowns. These are day-to-day crises that all families face and understand, albeit on an exaggerated canvas.

We love the ne’er do well, but we certainly cringe when she comes to Easter dinner and we never accept her Christmas gifts for obvious reason. So it is problematic that the Lucious’ music empire was built using Cookie’s drug money and now she wants a seat at the table.

Although they are no longer married, Cookie and Lucious share their past memories, the money, and, most importantly, their three sons. Their friendship is an entertaining mix of vinegar and honey, of push and pull. This new type of separate-yet-connected family is a modern reality as those involved have found ways to coexist for economic and familial accord.

The Lyons are a rich African-American family. That’s nothing new on TV (See “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” and the Huxtables of “The Cosby Show” fame). However, the Lyons family is different in two significant ways: they are wildly flawed in the personal and business dealings, and Lucious is preoccupied with the power and influence that the money can bring.

Although his swag and sway are more than the typical TV patriarch (he calls President Obama  “Barack”), as a modern black father, Lucious struggles to provide the same foundation for his family. Money to pay the bills is nice, but leaving a legacy to provide equal footing, or even superiority, to White America is the new mission.

The remainder of the Lyons’ family tension stems from Cookie and Lucious’ approach to parenting. Each has differing visions for their sons.

Cookie is accepting of Jamal’s romance with Michael. Although she refers to Jamal’s Mexican beau as “Dora” (as in the Explorer), she is comfortable with her son’s life. Conversely, Lucious refuses to leave his empire to “another man’s bitch.” In turn, he believes he can strong-arm Jamal into heterosexuality by threatening to take away all he has given his son if he comes out of the closet.

Black males shunning homosexuality is another hushed conversation in Black America. This strain is even stronger in hip hop music. “Empire” not only acknowledges this reality, but it uses the callousness of Lucious’ treatment of his son as the catalyst for Jamal’s vengeance against his father.

It is probably little more than a coincidence that the modern family on “Modern Family” and the Lyons have similar family dynamics: interracial relationships, broken marriages, homosexuality. The adjustment for the Dunphys-Pritchetts has been far more heartwarming for them than it has been for the Lyon brood.

Of course, if the Lyons were harmonious, viewers would change the channel.

Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University who researches economic, programming and diversity issues related to the media and entertainment industries.

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Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
Staff
2/9/2015 9:55 AM