The idea for Empire, Fox's midseason drama, came to Danny Strong when he was driving. "Empire was just some random idea I had," Strong told The Wire at Fox's upfront after party yesterday. "I was literally driving in my car and I thought, I wonder if you could do King Lear in a hip hop empire. I literally was like: King Lear. Hip hop Empire and then my next thought was, 'I should call Lee Daniels.'"
Though Strong's face is probably still best known as Gilmore Girls; Doyle or Buffy's Jonathan—in fact, at the party, his Buffy co-star David Boreanaz was posing for photo ops just a short ways away—Strong's most most recent accomplishments have come as writer. He won two Emmys for Game Change, which he also executive produced, and penned the critically-acclaimed Lee Daniel's The Butler. Hence, his first call when he got the idea for Empire was the director. "We were just talking," Strong said. "We got very close on The Butler. We worked on it for four years. It took forever to get it made. So then when I came up with this idea I was like, well, that’s the guy. And then he loved it immediately, and here we are at the upfronts." Though Strong pitched it as a movie, Daniels suggested a show. "I was like, 'oh my God, you’re right. Because it’s about a family. It’s Dynasty. We call it hip hop Dynasty," Strong said. "It’s like King Lear meets hip hop meets Dynasty."
Fox is scheduling Empire midseason, pairing it with a "streamlined" version of American Idol, for what Chairman Kevin Reilly called in his upfront presentation an "ultimate night of music and drama." Empire stars Terrence Howard—also a Butler collaborator—as a music mogul determining which of his three sons will succeed him. His ex-wife, played by Taraji P. Henson, looks to complicate matters, claiming half the company as hers. The show features music from producer Timbaland, and the upfront audience exited to its first single. "It’s badass cool," Strong told us.
"It’s an incredibly exciting moment because I think this will be the first all-African American soap opera in network television in forty years," Strong explained. "The entire cast is African-American, except for one character. So I think that in and of itself is pretty thrilling. But to do it in an environment that’s such a mainstream genre, like the music business and hip hop that crosses over on all races. I think it’s such a perfect way to do it."
Strong is quick to point out, thought that Empire is "not a TV show about race. It’s a TV show about a very affluent, wealthy African-American family that’s tearing itself apart to take over this empire, but then we’re constantly also flashing back into the past in which the main character, Lucius Lyons, Terrence Howard’s character, was a gangster in the Philly ghetto, very similar to very famous rappers today that had these sort of drug-dealing pasts. So you’ll get to see how he rose up from that drug-dealing past to become this superstar entrepreneur that he is."