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‘Empire’ Finale: Showrunner Ilene Chaiken Talks Season 2, Musical Challenges and Favorite Moments

Empire” exec producer Ilene Chaiken can’t believe that her dream season has come to an end. The 12-episode run of Fox’s runaway hit soap has been an experience like no other for the veteran showrunner.

“The sense of mission and joy we’ve had about doing this show was really apparent to me from the moment we went to work,” Chaiken told Variety, two days before “Empire” aired its two-hour finale. “Every member of (the cast and crew) has loved working on this show like they’ve never loved anything else. There was great passion and conviction from the start. We were all dedicated to the mission of making this show great.”

Mission accomplished. “Empire” has been a jaw-dropping success for Fox — defying the odds and ratings gravity to grow its audience with each week’s airing since its Jan. 7 premiere. To date the show is averaging more than 24 million viewers according to Fox’s 30-day projections. Its adults 18-49 rating is hovering around an 8.0. Those are the kind of numbers that give rival network execs hope for the future of broadcasting.

Chaiken was recruited after the Imagine TV/20th Century Fox TV pilot was produced this time last year. She emphasizes that the bonding among the cast members was meaningful long before those eye-popping first overnight ratings rolled in. Chaiken came on as showrunner of the series, created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, as it set up shop for its episodic production in Chicago.

“It was the material that drew everyone together,” Chaiken said. “It was important to the cast to be telling these stories about the African-American community in an authentic way. Even if we couldn’t exactly articulate it at the time, there was the sense that we were doing something that hadn’t been done before.”

The fact that the show is produced out of Chicago helped the core ensemble — Terrence Howard, Taraji P. Henson, Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Y. Gray and Trai Byers among them — to build relationships simply by spending more time together. “There’s something about the atmosphere of being in a remote location that makes for a bonding experience among casts. Sometimes it really does make the work better. They’re more focused. They know what they’re there to do. They usually just go back to their (residences) and prepare for the next day’s work.”

The huge response to the series was the kick in the pants they needed to get through to the end of the initial order. When the show premiered, the “Empire” team was just wrapping filming on episode 10. “We’d been working hard for a long time. The (ratings) gave us the energy to push forward and bring it home,” she said.

Asked to pick a favorite gasp-worthy moment from the first season, Chaiken hesitated before citing the surprise appearance of what is believed to be the young daughter of Jamal. But the scene-stealer of all has to be Taraji P. Henson’s entrance in the pilot as Cookie, freshly sprung from a 17-year prison sentence.

As for season two, Chaiken said the big questions of how many episodes “Empire” will deliver and when it lands on the schedule are still being worked out by Fox brass. (The betting is that the show returns in late fall with 16 or so episodes.) She expects the writers room to reconvene sometime next month.

“The decision is Fox’s to make. They love the show as much as we do. Whatever decision they make I will believe in. And we will be everything that ‘Empire’ is in now in season two,” Chaiken said. She doesn’t anticipate many changes in the writing staff for season two, though it’s size will depend on whether the network adds significantly more episodes. “I don’t believe they will ask us to do something we can’t do,” she said.

She admitted to feeling the pressure to measure up in season two to the show’s phenom performance. The second season of any TV show is in some ways harder than the first, Chaiken noted.

“It’s daunting,” she said. “I know the show has so much life in it. It’s a very, very well conceived television show. We haven’t begun to run out of (story) opportunities The thing that’s daunting is the amount of dedication it takes to make it.”

The importance of the original music to the storyline is the biggest complicating factor to delivering as traditional full season’s worth of 22 episodes, she said.

“Definitely the conception and the execution and the production of the music is an added layer on this show,” she said. “It’s like writing two scripts for every episode — the music is a story and it is every bit as meticulously crafted as the (plot) stories themselves. There’s a lot of weighing in from different corners. We figured out a process early on that has been quite successful for us. We will continue it into the second season with a slightly more robust (music) team.”

As for the March 18 season closer, Chaiken said she was confident that “the fans who have come to the party with us will love our finale. At the end, the land of ‘Empire’ is poised on a great precipice.”

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