NPR logo 'Empire' Nods To A Very Different Take On Policing Than We Usually See In Prime Time

'Empire' Nods To A Very Different Take On Policing Than We Usually See In Prime Time

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon and Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon in the "The Devils Are Here" Season 2 premiere episode of Empire. Chuck Hodes/Fox hide caption

toggle caption
Chuck Hodes/Fox

Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon and Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon in the "The Devils Are Here" Season 2 premiere episode of Empire.

Chuck Hodes/Fox

So far, this season of Empire has been all about whether Lucius Lyon, the diabolical record executive played by Terrence Howard, is going to be convicted of a murder he committed in the show's first season. Last week, the rest of the Lyon family staged a big outdoor rally/concert to drum up public support for Lucius, who is behind bars ahead of his pending trial.

The rally scene throws a lot at us, including some pretty clear nods to the Black Lives Matter movement — which the show name-checked last season with Lucius pledging to donate — and is capped off by a truly bizarre sequence in which Cookie Lyon, Lucius' estranged wife (played by Taraji P. Henson), is dramatically lowered by a crane onto a stage, in a cage, dressed as a gorilla in prison orange. (Lee Daniels, ladies and gentlemen!)

Then, Cookie takes off the gorilla mask and addresses the audience:

"How much longer? How much longer are they gonna treat us like animals? The American correctional system is built on the backs of our brothers, our fathers and our sons. How much longer? It's a system that must be dismantled piece by piece if we are to live up to those words that we recite with our hands on our hearts. Justice for all. Not justice for some, but justice for all. How much longer?"

Because it's Empire, the proceedings quickly moved on to soapier footing — a flesh-eating inmate played by Chris Rock, an ice queen seductress played by Marisa Tomei — but that scene and its less-than-sanguine message about our criminal justice system was incredibly anomalous for prime-time network television. For nearly as long as the medium has been around, cops and courts have been staples of the genre. And for just as long, those portrayals have been overwhelmingly kind to law enforcement.

"Whether on comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Castle, or dramas like Rizzoli and Isles and the endlessly-growing family of CSIs, cops are positioned primarily as the heroes of the narrative," S.E. Smith wrote at the Daily Dot earlier this year. Even as cop shows got grittier in tone over the decades, lead characters were largely depicted as good guys bumping up against shady suspects and counterproductive bureaucracies. Those tough-guy cops on NYPD Blue had to rough up their suspects because, well, sometimes you have to crack a few Fourth Amendment eggs to whip up an omelet of justice.

Of course, there have been some notable long-running cable shows — particularly The Wire and The Shield — with less broadly sympathetic views of the police. But those were the kind of niche, prestige dramas built around the ideas of playing with and complicating their audience's sympathies. They're the exceptions that prove the rule.

When we're talking about prime-time, network TV — and the biggest audiences — crime and punishment tends not to concern itself with real-world complexities. Take Law & Order, the long-running, original-recipe TV crime procedural: a 60-minute, case-of-the-week look at cops and courts from arrest to conviction. (All together now: "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important, groups ...")

Law & Order was beloved, but it was also a fairly fantastical, funhouse-mirror version of how crime and punishment actually works. The victims of violent crime in Law & Order's New York City tended to be white and middle class. There were no frazzled court-appointed attorneys, no overzealous prosecutors, no scenes where people were excluded from juries because they were presumed to be too skeptical of the police.

Then there's the climactic courtroom scene at the heart of nearly every episode, in which the defendant's guilt is clearly established during a withering cross-examination by the DA. The courtroom scene is a TV staple but a real-world anomaly: In real life, defendants almost never take the stand if their cases even get that far, because almost everyone convicted in our criminal justice system is given a sentence without ever actually standing trial. We dispose of more than 90 percent of state and federal criminal cases through plea deals — deals those defendants often take because going to trial can be costly and time-consuming.

An overworked public defender pushing her clients to take plea deals makes for less sexy TV than a noble, dogged prosecutor kneecapping the bad guy on the stand. But the idea that our justice system looks more like the latter — that it is fundamentally fair and works for everyone — has long been passed off on TV as neutral and not as, say, a very specific set of ideological assumptions. It's easy to pass this stuff off as having no real-world consequence. But consider that most people can recite their Miranda rights ("You have the right to remain silent ...") despite never having been arrested. The ways Americans think about the police and crime has been informed in large and small ways by the ubiquity of cops and courts on the small screen.

But poll after poll shows that black folks and white folks see this real-world stuff through very different prisms: Black folks are far more skeptical of the police and the criminal justice system. And that's why Cookie Lyon's rant on Empire about the fallout of the mass incarceration of black men was treated as a given; a Fox executive said last season that the show's audience in the coveted 18-to-49 age demographic is 62 percent black. Considering its viewership, it might have have seemed tone-deaf if the show hadn't nodded to the current conversation on policing and black lives in some way.

It's worth noting that Empire isn't the only show on TV right now that's absorbing the national story around race and policing — the others just tend to take a very different stance. Last year, while the Eric Garner case was all over the news, Laura Hudson at Slate wrote that CBS's Blue Bloods, in which sentient mustache Tom Selleck plays the head of the NYPD and the patriarch of a family of career police officers, had several storylines that treated issues of race and policing in ways that meant to flatter its older, white audience.

Hudson pointed to a scene in which a bigoted cop is given a dressing down by Selleck's character, then quickly and neatly relieved of his duties (with no apparent blowback from the police union). In another scene, a black suspect jumps from a building during a police chase, and an angry black crowd gathers around him as he lies on the ground, writhing and screaming police brutality. The idea is that bad policing can be blamed on individual bad apples — and easily cleaned up — or that cries of police misconduct are trumped up and really the fault of the suspect.

"In Blue Bloods, accusations leveled at police by citizens are almost always revealed to be fraudulent, and concerns about racial bias are almost always manufactured, deceitful, or overblown," Hudson wrote. "These parables perfectly buttress the way much of the show's older, mostly white audience feels about the police in America in 2014 — and how they feel about the people who challenge those perceptions."

(Fun exercise: Imagine how Cookie's speech about mass incarceration would have been treated on that show.)

That Cookie Lyon's indictment of the criminal justice system on Empire stands out so sharply from the way we usually talk about policing on prime time is obviously a function of who's watching that show, but also who is penning its scripts: Empire's writers' room looks markedly different from the Hollywood norm. Empire isn't a cop show, but it is a massive hit, in large part due to network TV's ongoing massive gravity shift involving who watches and how they watch it. Anything Empire has to say about policing is bound to reach an enormous and growing audience. As the idea of what TV's "mainstream" audience looks like gets complicated, we're almost certainly going to get more moments like Cookie's, where a whole bunch of widely held beliefs that have largely been absent from the TV landscape suddenly start popping up in prime time.