In the pilot of Empire, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) gets out of jail to begin her ascension to the throne of Empire Records, almost immediately shedding her prison uniform for furs, slinky designer clothes, and a penthouse apartment where she takes her rightful place — after all, she did time so her husband, Luscious (Terrence Howard), could be free to build their pop-the-trunk operation into a media conglomerate — as a woman of means in control of her own destiny.
Compare that to the first episode of Star, the new musical drama also from creator Lee Daniels, which premiered Wednesday night after the “winter finale” of Empire. Star (Jude Demorest), the titular aspiring singer, busts out of foster care, rescues her younger sister from being raped by her foster father, and travels to Atlanta not to luxuriate on a leopard throw rug and eat bon bons, a la Cookie, but to sweep hair in the salon her godmother runs out of her living room.
Just two years have passed since Empire turned into a surprise ratings blockbuster, but already so much has changed in the cultural landscape. Consider what the heroine of each show faces: Star has a step-sister who takes her to work at a strip club; Cookie has an assistant to hold her cell phone. Star does lap dances; Cookie has a roster of stars to manage. Star gets taken advantage of; Cookie systematically enacts revenge on everyone who has ever wronged her. (They both, however, possess amazing hair.)
These shows are both escapist fairy tales by genre, but they approach the fantasy from opposite ends of the spectrum. Empire is a saga of abundance, a family drama set against the aspirational backdrop of hip-hop success and excess. Star is a tale of deprivation, a drama about aspiring pop stars working hard to reach the pinnacle — where the Lyons already reside — with a fair share of setbacks, battling against a system rigged for their failure.
They’re both products of their time. Though Empire would eventually come to deal with the Black Lives Matter movement, it was created in the midst of the Obama era’s promise of a future post-racial society. The show was born into liberalism — complete with gay marriage, healthcare for all, and legal weed. The success of Empire confirmed all that.
Empire is essentially a retooling of Dynasty, which features a conservative white family in a square state living extravagantly at the height of Reaganism and all of its attendant excess. Only Empire recasts the model with a black family which has risen to the prominence that it was promised. Barack Obama is in the White House, so why can’t the biggest drama on TV showcase a black family that is firmly part of the 1%?
Debuting on Obama’s way out, Star is a different story. We’ve just endured an election where a candidate rode a wave of white nationalism right into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, confirming our basest instincts for racism and exclusion. The promise that Empire embodied for the future, where everyone had a seat at the boardroom table (even if it has a basketball hoop hanging over it), is gone. The Lyons’ campy, blingy histrionics already seem quaint.
That’s why Star is the more relevant show for this moment. Star, a white woman living in a black world, isn’t a success. She’s a striver. She’s trying to make a band with her mixed-race sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) and her African-American friend Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), who comes from a life of privilege but gives it all up for her dreams. Star is about struggling together, rather than the rich cutting each other down to get richer. It’s about people who have been laid low but feel they have no other direction to go but up.
Right now, the vulnerable among us — and we are legion — need a fairy tale to show us that by sticking together, rehearsing our dance moves, and wearing sparkly outfits we will be able to rise once again. Granted, these might be lofty goals to ascribe to a show featuring Queen Latifah in a rotating cast of maroon wigs, but TV is a product of its time and, right now, the dreamers in this country need something to hang onto. Empire was a celebration of how far we’ve come, but Star is inspiration for how far we still have to go.