“Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels is already looking ahead to possible spinoffs of his red-hot family drama. He said the world of the Lyon clan is rich enough to warrant additional series.
“I think there is going to be a spinoff from ‘Empire’ without question,” Daniels said Thursday during a panel on at the Television Critics Assn. press tour. “There so much ripe story there” to explore the origins of Taraji P. Henson’s character of Cookie Lyon and her rough-and-tumble upbringing in Philadelphia, as well as the roots of Terrence Howard’s hip-hip mogul Lucious Lyon.
Fox clarified that there is no spinoff formally in the works, but it remains a possibility. Daniels is also working on a new pilot for the network revolving around the Atlanta music scene.
“Empire,” the biggest broadcast TV hit in more than a decade, opens its second season on Sept. 23. The show garnered an Emmy nom for Henson but was left out of the running in the competitive best drama series race. Daniels initially made some pointed remarks about the snub, but on Thursday he offered more measured comments while discussing the 20th Century Fox TV/Imagine TV show’s sophomore year with Henson, showrunner Ilene Chaiken and exec producer Brian Grazer.
“I’m lucky to be working,” he said. “I spoke to my cast when we didn’t get an Emmy nomination (for series). Terrence and I had a moment where we realized we are lucky to be employed. We are blessed (to have) a show that I enjoy going to work to.”
Daniels also noted that his initial Emmy comments on social media were misinterpreted as anger rather than what he called his “deep sense of twisted humor.”
Daniels was surprised when a reporter informed him that “Empire” is the first African-American-led drama series to be renewed for a second season. When pressed to reflect on the reason for its outsized success, Daniels emphasized that the story of a complicated family that makes it rich is “the American dream” and not strictly an African-American story. And the world of “Empire” is rooted in his own experience, which makes the story inherently truthful, he said.
“I happen to be black. I happen to be gay. It’s a truthful experience,” Daniels said. “I think that is what Fox saw in the show. I’m very humbled and grateful for Fox in allowing us to do that.”
Henson said the envelope-pushing quality of the show gave it a cable flavor that clearly clicked with viewers.
“Network television had been so safe for so long — I think that’s why ‘Empire’ has done so well,” Henson said. She joked that a certain look from Cookie can approximate the four-letter words that are still verboten on broadcast TV.
Daniels confirmed that Mariah Carey is among the celebs who are lined up for guest shots in season two. But he’s always mindful of going overboard with stunt casting. “The more celebrates and stars I put on the show, the more it takes away from the family,” Daniels said.
As for the pressure to live up to the lofty heights of season one, Chaiken said the job is very clear. “Once you go to work, you just think about the stories you’re telling,” he said. “We want to continue to make the audience gasp and laugh and scream and cry.”
Daniels had expressed concern about having to produce more than 12 episodes in season two, after a cable-like schedule for season two. But he and Chaiken stressed that the network worked with them to develop a schedule that’s workable for all sides. The first half of the season will consist of 10 episodes, followed by a break until they return in the spring for eight more segs.
“I was a little nervous in the beginning because of the actors,” Daniels said. “It’s hard to turn out that kind of work — they’re not horses, you know. But Fox has put a schedule together that has made me less terrified.”
Chaiken added: “We will be able to devote as much time to each episode as we did in the first season. We’re not feeling any sense of having to do too much.”