Yet like so much surrounding the show, it didn’t work out as planned, as “Empire” signs off with more of a whimper than a bang, again due to circumstances beyond its control.
In this case, coronavirus intervened, shortening production on what was to have been a 20-episode season. The episode that airs Tuesday will be the 18th, although it will incorporate material from the penultimate hour that was partially shot.
For Fox, the program’s instant success provided a huge lift when it premiered in January 2015. “Empire” ranked as broadcast TV’s top-rated drama that season — the finale drew a whopping 17.6 million viewers — and soared in other metrics as well.
Big-name guest stars lined up to appear. A spinoff series, “Star,” was ordered (it lasted for three seasons), as Fox sought to further capitalize on the show’s popularity.
The Shakespearean premise starred Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, the patriarch of a musical empire. Faced with a terminal diagnosis (which conveniently went away once the series became a smash), Lucious set up a succession battle among his three sons — Andre (Trey Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray).
Much of the drama flowed from Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), being released from prison, vying not only for the company but the allegiance of their sons. Henson immediately became a breakout character, earning a pair of Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe in 2016.
Yet if the mix of soap-opera situations and music proved enticing, those storylines were difficult to sustain. Ratings had already fallen precipitously when off-screen controversy intervened.
Producers initially expressed support for the actor, but Smollett was eventually written out of the show. His character, viewers were told, moved to Europe.
Ratings were already declining, and slipped throughout the season as the Smollett story played out in the media. The series is currently averaging about 4 million viewers including seven days of delayed DVR playback, losing more than a third of its audience from last year.
Even before those events, executives at competing networks suggested that “Empire” had been a shooting star, which in TV terms is an appropriate analogy. Because once the light fades and you start heading downward, it’s hard to resist gravity.
The “Empire” finale airs April 21 at 9 p.m. on Fox.