Empire Showrunner Ilene Chaiken on the Show’s Overnight Success and the Two-Hour Finale

Photo: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Fox’s Empire burst onto the scene less than three months ago, immediately becoming the biggest new hit of the season — and one of TV’s hottest shows, period. In fact, the most recent episodes of the hip-hop family soap have surpassed The Big Bang Theory to rank as the No. 1 show on all of broadcast television among viewers under 50. With the two-hour season-one finale airing Wednesday at 8, we rang up Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken to get a sense of how she and series creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong are dealing with their overnight phenom. We also talked about why audiences are embracing Empire, how the show will evolve in season two, and what to expect from tomorrow’s season-ender. You can hear part of the conversation on this week’s installment of the new Vulture TV Podcast, or read on for an extended (and gently edited) transcript: 

The show premiered in early January. At that point, where were you in the production schedule for season one?
When the show premiered, we had shot, I believe, through episode 10. Really, just the finale — which is episodes 11 and 12 — those were all we had left to shoot.

So production for most of the season wasn’t impacted that much [by the show’s success]. Did it change how you approached the finale?
It didn’t affect the stories we were telling or the plans we had because they were well in the works. I have to say that we wouldn't have changed anything. We really believed in what we were doing. 

One of the favorite games for those of us in the media right now is “Why is Empire so huge?” There are a lot of different working theories — because of the huge support from the African-American audience, because it’s fun television when so much of TV drama of late has been dour. Do you have any theories yourself as to why people respond to it?|
My theory is that all of those things are true, and all of those things factor into it. When a show succeeds — any television show — there’s just this fantastic alchemy that occurs. Everything starts with a script and a concept. It’s gotta be that good, and this one was. My first contact with the show was reading the script, and knowing that Lee Daniels and Danny Strong were doing this show. Already, that made an exciting proposition. But then it’s not until it’s cast, especially on an ensemble show. There’s just this thing that happens when an ensemble gels. It happened on Empire in such a big way. Led by Terrence Howard and Taraji Henson — two extraordinary actors who are at the peak of their powers as actors — a cast coalesced around them, and rose to the bar that they had set. And it just happened. You could feel it from the very beginning. From the moment I saw how they actually put that script on film, and the pilot that Lee Daniels shot, I knew something really extraordinary was happening with this show.

You created The L Word, but in the case of Empire, you’re helping execute a vision that existed before you arrived.
I was not involved in the pilot. I came on after they made it. This is something that happens in television a lot. When two feature filmmakers who haven’t run a show, or haven’t done television, get their show on the air, they need somebody who’s going to deliver their visions day to day, episode to episode. That’s when I came on.

Did you hesitate about doing a show you didn’t create yourself?
I love doing my own work. Who wouldn’t? But more than that, the thing that excites me is doing game-changing television. I saw the pilot of Empire alone in a little room, which is not the ideal circumstance for watching any kind of filmed entertainment. But I walked out of the room and I called my manager, who had put me in that room, and said, “This is a game-changer. I want to do this.” I don’t usually passionately want to work on a show that I didn’t create, but I passionately wanted to work on this, because I really felt like it was doing something. I connected to it. I was moved by it. I felt like I really had something to offer, and I was very excited to embrace Lee and Danny’s vision, and to try to understand it more deeply and make it work on an episodic television regime.

Lee has said publicly in interviews that he said he wanted to make a black Dynasty. The show definitely has those elements, but it also, I think, reflects how TV has evolved in 30 years. Television is different than it was in the ’80s. People want a lot more from their TV than just catfights and costumes. It does seem like with Empire, you’re blending what worked back in the day with what’s happening now. Kind of Dynasty, but with real depth.
I think you’re exactly right. I think you really articulated the mission and magic of the show. I love that Lee embraced this idea of doing a black Dynasty. But I said to him, I think in our first meeting, “You’re being modest, and you’re underestimating what you’ve done.” I actually learned television at the feet of Aaron Spelling. It was my first job in television. I kind of love those shows, and I watched them avidly whenever they were on.  Empire does all that, has all those moves. It’s grand and fabulous in all the same ways. But it’s also really authentic. It’s about something, and it tells a much more authentic story than those shows ever did. It’s not a confection. 

Another main reason the show works is because you’ve got this perverted love story between Cookie and Lucious. What’s your take on that relationship?
It was there on the page, but it was really the chemistry between Terrence Howard and Taraji Henson that made it come to life, and made us understand, as writers and filmmakers, how valuable it was to mine. Every time they’re onscreen together, whether they’re loving one another or hating one another, it’s magical. No matter how treacherous, how profound the betrayal, you still kind of want them to be together.

Empire has also won a lot of praise for the way it’s handled Jamal’s story line, of his coming out and of his dad’s homophobia. You created The L Word, which dealt with some of the same themes, but what’s it been like doing this on broadcast TV?
The L Word went off in 2009, so it’s been some time. I’m encouraged by the way that TV has changed. It’s changed as the culture has changed. A lot of times we expect entertainment to lead the culture, but I almost feel like TV has followed the culture in this case. The change is happening, and we’re reflecting it. 

Empire viewers are still fully engaged in season one of the show, but you’re already well along in the process of thinking about season two. Given how big this first year has been, there are going to be so many expectations about next season, both in the TV industry and among fans. Are you already thinking about that?  
It keeps me up at night. I think about it regularly and nonstop, whether I want to or not. The biggest challenge is: Season two has to continue what the show is in season one. It has to be consistent with the stories we’ve been telling, and the world that’s been created. And yet everything has to change, and we have to be better. We absolutely have to be better, and yet we really have to honor what the show is and what's working about it. That is really daunting.

Any specific challenges? 
The show moves very fast. It has a pace that people recognize and seem to really enjoy. We have to keep it up. I don’t worry that we’ll burn through stories, [but] I think there might be stories that we could take our time with more. And as we learn how to be better at what we’re doing, which we do constantly, we’ll be able to do that. We’ll be able to find those moments where we spend more time with the story arc, and delve into it. We have to really follow these characters and these stories we’ve begun. When you see the finale on Wednesday night, you’ll know that we’re leaving the season with a lot of great, big opportunities. They might also be called cliffhangers.

When do you go back to the writers’ room for season two?
Sometime in mid-April.

And do you know yet how many episodes you’ll be working on for next season? With a hit as big as Empire, Fox is going to want more than the 12 you did this season.
There’s no final answer. I have to agree with you that it’s going to be more than 12, and fewer than 22. The conversations that we’re having are about how to do more episodes, but … make sure that the writers can continue to write scripts that are as good as we want them to be and [that] we can continue to produce music at the level of quality as the music in season one. Not to mention the stamina of the cast. We’re just gonna choose a number that enables us to protect the quality of the show.

Do you think that there might be wisdom in splitting the season into two segments, as some shows have done lately? Maybe having a batch of eight and eight, or nine and nine, so you could have miniseasons in the fall and winter or spring? 
I love that concept and that schedule, and I know that it’s something that’s under consideration.

Another way to help with making more episodes would be to expand the cast, to add more story lines beyond the core family. Do you think the cast can or should get bigger?
I think the show will continue to be about the family; they will always be at the heart of the show. But the cast definitely will get bigger, in an organic way. People come into the lives of our characters, and they become characters in the show. I have no doubt that we’ll be adding series regulars, or long-arc characters.

Set the scene for the finale. What can we expect in this two-hour extravaganza?
Well, everything changes.

There’s the headline!
There are some huge betrayals. At the end of our two hours, it’s impossible to say what’s going to happen in the lives of the Lyon family. One thing I will promise is that the gauntlet that was thrown down in the pilot has been met. Now it creates a whole new set of problems for everyone.