Inside the Secret Formula to Fox's 'Empire,' TV's Next Big Hit

by Denny Directo 5:12 PM PST, January 14, 2015
Playing Inside the Secret Formula to Fox's 'Empire,' TV's Next Big Hit

If you haven't watched Empire, Fox's highly stylized soap set in the world of hip hop, you're doing yourself an injustice. It's as sexy and sassy, as it is culturally important-- the perfect combination of juicy melodrama and rich family drama. Not to mention it features some of the more exciting new characters on television, set against the backdrop of amazing original music.

Nearly 10 million viewers tuned in to the series debut, making it the highest-rated premiere for the network in three years. What's the secret to their winning formula? ET went behind the scenes to find out what it takes to create TV's newest and hottest guilty pleasure.

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It all starts with amazing talent in front of and behind the camera. The primetime soap opera works because first, it's got co-creator Lee Daniels (Precious, Lee Daniel's The Butler) and Oscar-winning producer Brian Grazer who set out to push the limits of network television.

"It's not a conventional drama," Grazer tells ET. "It's like doing Dynasty in the world of hip hop." He adds, "It's upscale and kind of intense at the same time."

The series is toplined by Terrence Howard as Lucious, a drug-dealer turned music mogul, who must decide which of his three sons will take over his company after learning he has a fatal disease. Howard goes toe-to-toe with Taraji P. Henson as his outspoken ex-wife Cookie, who is released from prison and wants her share of the company.

The Oscar-nominated actors admit that it wasn't a tough sell to join the project. "There's nothing like this on TV!" Henson explains. "People are thirsty for something different. And I could tell when I was killed off on Person Of Interest. No one saw that coming! And I was like the world is ready for something new on television."

In addition to the pair's undeniable chemistry, another real driving force of the show is the music. Produced by platinum hit maker Timbaland, Empire is taking a page from Glee and getting the soundtrack to the audience as the show rolls out.

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"Timbaland's music is the voice of today's generation," Daniels says. "His music is a character in the film and plays as much of a character in the film as the characters [do.]"

Despite all these variables in Empire's initial success, Daniels suggests that the real traction is the audience's connection to the series' universal message. "I think that the attraction is that it's not just about African American experience, it's about an American experience," Daniels says. "It's the Kennedys, except it's modern day. And I think that we all relate to the American Dream."

Empire airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

Follow Denny on Twitter: @DDirecto.