“Empire,” Fox’s smash hit about a family’s struggle for control of a major media company, often plays with the tension between what constitutes authenticity, and the privileges and presentation that come from wealth and power.
“There’s a lot of reversals inherent in ‘Empire’ because Cookie disdains Anika for being bougie, for being privileged,” showrunner Ilene Chaiken said of the two women at the center of the series, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson), the first wife of mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), and Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey), Cookie’s successor. “Although Anika professed to own it, how did she describe herself, ‘A bougie ho that can slit your throat without disturbing her pearls,’ the sense, really, is that if there’s anything to be ashamed of, it’s being bougie. The value is being authentically street.”
One of the core storylines early in the second season of “Empire” aims straight at that tension: In last year’s finale, Lucious was arrested on charges that he’d murdered his friend Bunkie Williams (Antoine McKay). The crime itself was an illustration of the extent to which Lucious lives a bifurcated life. He has enough influence that President Obama might call him on the phone, but he’s still enmeshed with the people with whom he used to sell drugs before he broke out as a musician. Lucious begins the second season in prison.
“A thing we explore for a little while is what it’s like to be Lucious Lyon without all that privilege, and living a really bifurcated life,” Chaiken said. “Because you can image that Lucious Lyon in prison is still a god, he’s still revered, and probably even more so by the population that surrounds him. But at the same time, he’s a prisoner and someone who’s being deprived of his rights while his case is being adjudicated. We find that interesting, we find that to be rich story turf. … Lucious is that guy who has really balanced those two things masterfully, because he certainly doesn’t apologize for being powerful. And yet he never stopped being a gangster.”
“Survivor’s Remorse,” the Starz comedy about a young basketball star and his extended family, explores some of the same issues, but from a lower-stakes place. Much of the action is driven by the way Cam Calloway (Jessie Usher) and his family adjust from the grinding poverty of Boston to their new wealth after Cam signs his first giant deal with Atlanta, and to the new expectations that are placed on the family members as Cam’s representatives.
Some of the funniest storylines play out through Mary-Charles (Erica Ash), Cam’s outspoken, lesbian older sister, who got the family tossed out of their first condo building in downtown Atlanta by throwing a lawn chair off a roof deck, and who lands in trouble this year after she punches Cam, an altercation that’s captured on the family’s home security system.
“You would think that with season one, they’ve kind of, sort of figured it out, and they’re just living their life now, it would be cool,” Ash told me when we spoke over the summer. “But there’s so much more that she’s exposed to, especially in season two, that she wasn’t privy to before. And some of her behaviors, she’s called to task on them. Where before, they were still equally bad, now because she’s in the public eye, they’re really brought to light, and they’re everybody’s problems, not an internal thing that she and the family can just brush under the rug. And I think it’s important for her, in her growth, that she understands that there’s still a line.”
While it might have been easy for “Survivor’s Remorse” to dump on Mary-Charles, the series does something more complicated, particularly through her relationship with Missy Vaughn (“Mad Men” veteran Teyonah Parris), the wife of Cam’s cousin and manager Reggie (RonReaco Lee).
“It’s jarring for Missy at first, because clearly she’s grown up in a different type of society, one where there is, you know, lots of class, lots of culture, lots of pomp and circumstance, if you will, lots of rules and regulations and ceremonious ways of doing things, and you follow the rule, and you stay in line, and you wear this dress,” Ash said (series creator Mike O’Malley told me he imagined that Missy’s family was someone like Washington power broker Vernon Jordan). “I think there is a little, there’s a little yearning on Missy’s part to have a little of that freedom that Mary-Charles has.”
“She comes from a family where this is how you present yourself, this is how you speak, this is how you relate to others, and to come into this family where they have no sense of decorum, no sense of boundaries, I do think it’s kind of rubbing off on her a little bit, and in her own way she’s finding freedom in small things like changing her hair,” Parris said. And while the Calloways have continued their journey of upward mobility by moving to the Buckhead neighborhood, Missy and Reggie haven’t followed them, finding their own place in a city that Missy wasn’t eager to live in at all.
In “The Carmichael Show,” NBC’s multicamera family show, questions of class get mashed up with generational differences, and even the relative shades of the characters’ skin.
Maxine (Amber Stevens West), who moved in with her boyfriend, Jerrod (series creator Jerrod Carmichael), has struggled to build a relationship with Jerrod’s parents, Cynthia (Loretta Devine) and Joe (David Alan Grier). In the pilot, she creates an awkward moment by bringing up Cynthia and Joe’s class status when Joe reveals that he sometimes votes Republican.
In the third, Jerrod is frustrated when Joe and Cynthia refuse to eat better, despite Joe’s history of serious heart problems. When Jerrod buys Cynthia a gift certificate to Whole Foods in an effort to get her to buy better ingredients, she asks if she has to wear a hat to be well-dressed enough to shop there. Maxine, who has been the subject of jokes from Joe because she is biracial, and because she has made some social missteps with the couple, tries to improve her relationship with Cynthia and Joe by serving them their favorite, unhealthy foods. These treatments of class are in keeping with the show’s blunt, protean approach to politics.
“Empire,” “Survivor’s Remorse” and “The Carmichael Show” are all radically different. They vary in format — a glossy soap, a beautifully shot cable comedy and a throwback multicamera network sitcom — and tone, and in the audiences they’re trying to reach. But they share a boldness and a willingness to talk about class that show off their collective strength: Finally, television has the shows it needs to stage similar conversations and lead us to very different answers.