The vibe in the writers’ room always reflects the DNA of a given show, says Wendy Calhoun, co-executive producer of “Empire,” Fox’s new hip-hop family drama. “‘Justified’ had a swagger to it. ‘Revenge’ — we were always trying to figure out a way to get back at somebody,” she says with a laugh.
“And this show immediately developed a family dynamic,” Calhoun adds. “I’ve never worked with so many African-American writers before. ”
Executives say the show is the most diverse in network TV — a claim that may well be true. Of the nine writers on staff, six are of color.
“It wasn’t as if we sat down and said, ‘Let’s find the best African-American writers for this show,’” says Francie Calfo, head of Imagine Television, the studio behind “Empire.” “We were just looking for the best writers.”
As conceived by creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, “Empire” tells the story of the battle for control of a music empire among a former drug dealer-turned-CEO (Terrence Howard), his three sons, and his ex-wife (Taraji P. Henson), who’s just been released from prison. Call it “King Lear” set in the hip-hop world. The show tackles head-on issues of race, homophobia (one son is gay) and poverty — all while integrating music into the episodes.
“There’s never been a drama that has told these stories,” says showrunner Ilene Chaiken. “It’s a game-changer.”
So when it came to building the writers’ room, Chaiken — who herself was chosen for her experience in dealing with complex characters and provocative storylines — says diversity came naturally, but authenticity was her priority. “I wouldn’t presume that I know how to write this world and these stories and these characters,” she says. “I certainly supported myself and this show with writers who know the world much more intimately and integrally than I do.”
As it turned out, there’s also diversity in their experiences: There’s a novelist, a music video director, a playwright. Calfo equates it to building a competitive team in baseball. “You need to have a nice long bench, with people who can do different things,” she says.
Calhoun points to Malcolm Spellman and Attica Locke, who were new to the process. “I loved hearing from them, because they don’t know the tropes that a lot of writers’ rooms fall into,” she says. “Their pitches are inspired. They know what’s real.”
Listening to the back-and-forth in the room as the writers break an episode late in the season, it feels like a family reunion: lively, spirited, boisterous. There’s a long conversation about strip club culture in the South, a debate about who went to jail to protect Jay-Z, and a hilarious argument about whether Phil Spector wore a wig (which prompted some Googling). And “The Good Wife” comes up a lot.
Everyone’s clearly passionate about the project, recognizing they’re part of something rare.
“We’re getting to tell the American Dream from the black male point of view, which has been done in music for 40 years, but for whatever reason hasn’t made it to television,” says Calhoun. “That’s pretty thrilling.”
Spellman, who had long resisted staffing a TV series, was ultimately lured by the show’s premise. “I’m bananas for hip-hop,” he says.
Now, he says, he’d join again in a heartbeat.
“The show feels historic onscreen, down to the room,” he says. “To have a show that’s this black, from the stars to the writers, it’s going to be like a nuclear bomb. It’s a watershed moment.”