Thanks to Shonda Rhimes and her powerhouse lineup of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” Thursdays are TGIT. But this year, I now have TGIW.
Wednesdays are for “Black-ish” and “Empire” — and especially for Cookie Lyon. She’s the best part of “Empire,” Fox’s breakout hit that is a rap “King Lear” and a hip-hop “Dynasty.”
It’s the only show this season to see ratings boom with each new episode — it’s up to 11.9 million viewers and counting — and it’s the only one to have such a huge black audience, 61 percent.
Some credit producer Lee Daniels (“The Butler,” “Precious”). Others say it’s the acting. Or, like “Nashville,” the music.
Let me declare that Cookie Lyon is queen of all the reasons to watch Wednesday nights.
Cookie serves up side dishes of nasty and whole plates of fabulous. Thanks to brilliant acting by Taraji P. Henson, the character is equal parts Lil Kim and Erica Kane. I mean, she can find a way to dis someone during grace at the dinner table.
In case you haven’t seen the hot mess of greatness that is “Empire,” Cookie is making a comeback. Recently released from prison for dealing drugs, she’s ready to claim the Empire record label she started with her husband, Lucious — as in Lucifer — Lyon (Terrence Howard). He’s ruthless, and his hair is stuck in the Motown era. But he has been diagnosed with ALS and now wants their three sons to fight for control of the legacy.
Youngest son Hakeem is a rapper and a spoiled womanizer with self-esteem issues. Middle son Jamal, a fan favorite, is the target of his father’s homophobia. Jamal wants his acceptance and a career as a singer, and Cookie is going to get him there. And the oldest son, Andre (KCK’s own Trai Byers), appears to be his dad’s right-hand businessman. But he reeks of treachery.
Cookie wants it all. Not only is she responsible for the dirty seed money that launched Empire, she’s a talented producer who helped Lucious gain fame as an artist before the label existed. She is fabulous in all her flashy ways. She’s not afraid of animal prints and furs galore. She is in-your-face, hard to deny. And even with an ice-cold demeanor, Cookie has heart.
She and Lucious have a love-hate relationship that fuels the drama. It’s fun to watch, even better to tweet — a constant in the Nielsens’ most tweeted shows.
But the show is not without controversy. While some celebrate Jamal’s storyline for confronting homophobia, others say the show makes black people seem especially homophobic. There’s also the complaint that “Empire” panders to the lowest-common-denominator stereotypes of black folk.
For that reason, I was reluctant to watch the show. But the more I tuned in, the more I realized that this is a soap opera. It’s not meant to be reality TV. Every show does not have to fit the Cosby Jell-O mold. TV has room for all kinds of black characters — from a moral compass of a detective like Abbie Mills on “Sleepy Hollow” to the hopelessly single, reckless and successful Mary Jane Paul on “Being Mary Jane” to the complicated leaders of the pack, “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope and “How to Get Away With Murder’s” Annalise Keating.
Yes. You can watch the motherly doctor that is Rainbow Johnson on “Black-ish” and watch cutthroat Cookie Lyon, too. I’m so thankful for the DVR.
Henson says viewers should dig into “Empire’s” dialogue revolving around family, homosexuality, feminism and racism in the music industry.
“Art is supposed to challenge, start a conversation, so let’s lift the carpet up and deal with this dirt,” Henson told Uptown Magazine. “So I’m glad you’re mad. Do something about it. Go in the hood and talk to the kids so they don’t do dumb stuff like that.”
And that’s what I love about Cookie. Even when she’s pushing your buttons, she’s pushing you to think. Who runs the empire? Cookie.
Where to watch
“Empire” airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays on Fox.