Why ‘Empire’ rules network TV and you should pay attention to this show

Jussie Smollett, left, plays a gay singer on “Empire,” with Taraji P. Henson, who plays his mom.
Jussie Smollett, left, plays a gay singer on “Empire,” with Taraji P. Henson, who plays his mom. FOX/TNS

“Empire” caught everyone by surprise.

The FOX family drama that plays out against the cutthroat world of the music industry opened strong when it launched as a mid-season replacement in January. What no one expected was for the ratings to climb each week until the season finale attracted almost 17 million viewers.

The second season opens Sept. 23. If you are already watching the most addictive family drama since J.R. Ewing ruled the ratings through “Dallas,” you know why the show has been such a big hit. Here are some reasons why fans are so rabid for those of you who haven’t felt the show’s intoxicating beat.

Family ties

The series is the creation of Lee Daniels, whose past work includes “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “Precious” and “Shadowboxer.” “Empire” is designed to look at a specific family, but Daniels believes there’s a broad appeal to their story.

“I think that what we were trying to do was tell a story that was universal. It happened to be in the hip-hop world,” says Daniels. “It was really based on ‘The Lion in Winter.’ It was a dynasty. It was the American dream that it’s not just about an African-American experience. Yes, I’m African-American. It’s my experience. But it’s the American dream that we were trying to tell.”

The show is using the same soap opera form that has made programs from daytime dramas to prime-time offerings, such as “Dallas” or “Knots Landing,” so successful.

These are people who live in a world of privilege, but they face the same emotional trials and tribulations: falling in love, adultery, sibling rivalries, greed, success, betrayal and lust.

Star power

When a show becomes a hit, there’s a rush to be part of that success even by those who don’t traditionally act.

Because “Empire” uses the music industry as a background, the show has been able to incorporate a lot of big-name guest stars, many playing characters and some – like Snoop Dogg – appearing as themselves.

The first season featured appearances by Gladys Knight, Mary J. Blige, Patti LaBelle, Courtney Love, Juicy J and Sway Calloway. Second season guest stars will include Chris Rock, Alicia Keys, Lenny Kravitz, Common, Oprah Winfrey, Pitbull and Mariah Carey.

Even when those from the music world are playing characters, they bring with them an immediate fan base that gives a bump to the ratings.

Staying social

“Dallas” became a massive hit in the 1970s and ’80s because it was always the water-cooler topic the day after an episode aired. These days with social media, there’s no reason to wait until the next day to discuss the latest events on “Empire.”

The producers, directors and writers of “Empire” know immediately what fans like and don’t like about the show. Viewers get to be active members of the “Empire” family by sharing their opinions.

“It factors into our thinking all the time. We don’t change the stories we want to tell because somebody said something on Twitter about it, but it’s always in our thinking,” says Ilene Chaiken, co-executive producer. “And, also, we tell stories about social media. We’re telling stories about a world in which social media is a huge player, and it becomes seamless and very meta for us.”

The Cookie factor

Analyze this show all you want, but there’s really only one reason this show has become a hit: Star Taraji P. Henson’s character of Cookie Lyon.

Part Lady Macbeth and part Foxy Brown, this is a woman who can cut you in a variety of ways. The extreme personality works because of Henson, who says she’s having the time of her life playing the role that blends fiction and fact.

“I would say that probably 80 percent is Cookie and maybe 20 percent is Taraji,” Henson says. “I mean, every character that I portray, I bring a little bit of my life and experience to it. I’m not as bold as she is. I have to be politically correct in what I say.”