Warning: This post contains spoilers towards the bottom of the text.
After an explosive first season, there are only two ways a new hit show can go. It can be a “Glee.” Or it can be a “Scandal.”
Which path will it be for “Empire,” which aired its cliffhanger-packed finale Wednesday night? The Fox drama (starring Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson) had an unparalleled first season, the kind so powerful it’s hard to describe. The show grew every single week in the ratings, something no TV series has done, probably ever — or at least since Nielsen started its current measuring system in 1991. About 9 million tuned in for the season premiere in January, which rose to 15 million for the penultimate episode. And that’s without DVR or OnDemand viewing, which adds millions more.
Oh, and that season finale? About 16.5 million viewers, Fox announced on Thursday morning. And Twitter went crazy:
That’s to say nothing about the way the series showcased fashion, or its hip-hop soundtrack landing at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. Most importantly, the show seemed to finally wake up Hollywood about the fact that mainstream audiences crave diverse programming. In fact, “Empire” and ABC’s “Black-ish” are two of the only breakout hits of the 2014-2015 season.
But what about its future? Like we said, two possible paths lie ahead for the second season. While their debut seasons can’t quite compare to “Empire’s,” Fox’s “Glee” and ABC’s “Scandal” had a lot of similarities. Both were smash hits in their first season — but things diverged after that.
High school glee club dramedy “Glee” started off quite strong, conquering the music charts like “Empire” has. It garnered Emmy nominations and turned the young cast (Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Amber Riley, Matthew Morrison) into stars. Everything looked great as the show came back for the second season. . . but then it completely went off the rails. Story lines crashed and burned; the characters made no sense; and viewers quickly fled.
Then, the opposite: “Scandal,” about D.C. fixer who could conquer any Capitol Hill madness, also launched with lots of buzz, particularly for lead star Kerry Washington as Olivia “It’s Handled” Pope. The plot lines were also completely out of control, but it brought a self-aware approach to its addictive absurdity, and viewers loved the outrageous twists. It also racked up award nominations. And then in the second season. . . it actually improved! In fact, the season average ratings have increased every year since the first one.
So how will “Empire” fare? The finale offered quite a few cliffhangers heading into Season 2: It turns out Empire Records CEO Lucious Lyon (Howard) is not, in fact, dying of ALS. Oh, also he’s in jail for murdering his best friend; but only after his wife, Cookie (Henson), tried to smother him in his sleep. And by trying to save her husband Andre, Rhonda accidentally killed Vernon, Lyon’s business partner.
We’re going to go on a limb and say that even though the show is venturing into “Glee” territory with its manic story lines, Fox was smart to order only 12 episodes. By keeping the drama at the length of a cable series, the writers didn’t have to stretch the craziness over 22 burnout-inducing episodes.
Plus, the show has music going for it — likely the only reason that “Glee” lasted so long. (The sixth and final episode airs on Friday.) Given that “Empire” sold 130,000 copies of its soundtrack last week, enough to mitigate any future lull in the ratings.
And finally, “Empire” simply has extreme word-of-mouth working in its favor. Although the show won’t likely be back until early 2016, Fox has all the episodes on its OnDemand service so latecomers can finally see what all of the fuss is about. And it’s pretty much assumed that the show can bank on an Emmy nomination or two in the fall, just to remind everyone. (As it happens, Fox will air the Emmys this year.)
The most telling factor about “Empire’s” endurance: Twitter blew up on Wednesday night. Hundreds of thousands of tweets with the hashtag #EmpireFinale poured in during the episode. The only show currently on TV to cause that kind of frenzied tweets? By coincidence (or not), that would be “Scandal.”