Now that television has entered the era of Empire, claims that black-cast dramas don’t succeed no longer carry any weight. Since its Jan. 7 bow, viewers for the campy hip-hop-tinged drama have steadily increased, to nearly 15 million an episode. And black viewers reportedly account for 64 percent of Empire’s total audience.
Behind the scenes, Empire is also diverse. Dallas native Wendy Calhoun serves as one of two co-executive producers on the show and rounds out a writing staff of nine, six of whom are black.
Calhoun, a New York University alum, has worked in series television since 2006. Prior to joining Empire, the married mother worked on Justified, Revenge and Nashville in writing and producing roles. As good as her career had been, however, she admits that “when the script for Empire came along, I was like, this is just too good to be true”—and she went for it. Calhoun landed the job and has helped shaped every episode after the pilot, even penning “False Imposition,” episode 4, in which Cookie helps Empire sign hot incarcerated rap artist Titan.
In an exclusive interview with The Root, Calhoun reflects on the season, shedding light on the show’s tremendous success, Cookie’s allure and more.
The Root: This sort of hip-hop-infused series has been tried before, as evidenced by the initial comparisons to Power on Starz. And then there was a show called Platinum, created by John Ridley in 2003 on UPN. Why has Empire been so successful?
Wendy Calhoun: To be honest, the credit has to go to Fox for marketing because they believed [in] and pushed the show in a way I’ve never seen a network do before. They really got behind the show, and they got creative about how they would market it, and they didn’t limit how they would market it. I wouldn’t say my first thought would be that they would market it on the World Series and on the NFL, but that’s what they did.
They went to the black film festivals. They did both grassroots marketing, but then they also did a huge, wide swath, and then they said, “We’re not going to just limit where we promote this show. We’re going to present this show everywhere it could possibly make sense and hope people will just come and check it out.” And luckily, when they did come and check it out, we had enough to offer.
TR: What makes Cookie so appealing? Was her appeal that apparent on the written page?
WC: Yes. Yes it was. Come on. Everything about that character is so fun and unique, but she still has depth. Somebody that has that amount of history. A woman who was in charge of her family who made a huge sacrifice, who has questionable origins in the sense that she’s not a saint—nor does she try to pretend to be—and she’s coming to re-establish herself in the world. And I think women in general can tap into what that feels like, the establishment, the sacrifice of family, the urge to unify the family, the loss of love after imprisonment. These are just fundamental dramatic things.
TR: Now that the first season is wrapping, what have been some of your most memorable moments?
WC: Boy, there’s so many. I love the initial bond that came out between Cookie and Jamal, right from the pilot. That was fascinating to me. Even in flashbacks, seeing Jamal go see his mother, really, really touched me.
In episode 4 [Editor’s note: “False Imposition,” which Calhoun wrote], seeing Cookie and Lucious start to come together as a couple a little bit again and work together as a couple, and hearing Cookie express to Fatima [Titan’s mom] about having lost her family, and knowing what that means, those are … some of the really important moments to me. And also seeing her reach out to Hakeem. And then episode 5, watching Cookie go gangster a little bit.
And then, of course, episode 6, [the] glitz and ass—I mean, come on, now! She was so funny and so fantastic. I mean, Taraji [P. Henson] just brought it all. See, I’m just going on and on. There are so many moments that I love that have been able to come through the conception of Cookie in the writers’ room—and then on the set, watching Taraji bring that alive and add her own sauce to it.
TR: The decision to not make Jamal Lola’s daddy, was that an easy one? How did that come about?
WC: It was definitely a point of discussion in our room many, many days. We didn’t just all agree that’s the way we should go with the story. We really talked it out in a spirited debate, I like to say, but to be honest, it did help in the evolution of Jamal’s character. It deepened who he was. I wouldn’t change the moment of him in the bedroom singing to little Lola for anything in the world.
Whether or not he is the father to a certain degree is not the real trigger. The trigger is you get to see somebody dealing with what does it mean to be a father, a black father. And we see that in Lucious, too, and that’s really an interesting thing.
TR: And Raven-Symoné playing Olivia, Lola’s mom?
WC: It was wild for me because I loved That’s So Raven. I watched all the episodes. I know them all. So to see her in this context was kind of odd, but I love that we were able to have this kind of character for her to play.
TR: Your reaction to the social media reaction?
WC: The best part, of course, is the public reaction. It’s so fun. It’s great. It’s so energizing. … It’s such validation because we rarely in television get to hear the audience reaction to our work, and Twitter and Instagram have filled in a kind of vacuum that we as TV writers exist in when we create, so it gives you that much more energy and inspiration to keep telling more stories, to keep wanting to invest in these characters.
In the black community, the discussions up until Empire were a lot about Ferguson[, Mo.,] and all of these sort of very painful things that we needed to galvanize ourselves over to express and work toward finding some justice and peace, and that is very important. However, I think it is equally important that we have touchstones in pop culture in entertainment and music to talk about, too. We can have positive things and fun things and things that are somewhat controversial, but the more important thing to me is that we’re talking about it.
TR: Finally, can you give us some hints about the grand finale?
WC: I don’t tell anybody. I don’t tell my kids. I don’t tell my husband. I don’t tell my mom. I don’t tell my dad, and they all ask.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.