The first scene of Fox’s new, ratings-demolishing series Empire doesn’t introduce the cast of characters that will make up the tapestry of the show. It doesn’t tour the mansions that will serve as its backdrop, or offer the titillation that will punctuate it. But within two minutes, it sets the register in which the rest of the series will operate.
A young woman sings a verse and a chorus in a recording studio as a producer, played by Terrence Howard, watches from the booth. Her voice is beautiful, but you can tell that he’s unsatisfied. “I need you to sing like you are going to die tomorrow,” he interrupts, “Like this is the last song you will ever sing, you hear me? Show me the soul in this music.” Another failed try later, she launches into the next-level take: the same words, the same melody, but it’s also evoking something visceral, fundamental, ineffable.
That’s the register in which Empire has continued to play throughout its debut season thus far: over the top, manipulative, bombastic. But those are all pejoratives ladled on a mode of entertainment that, for all its excess, is capable of expressing profound and often unspeakable truths about marginalization and oppression, and of articulating the impossibility and helplessness of living in a world defined by contradictions.
That mode is melodrama — and family melodrama in particular, one of the most resilient and influential artistic forms of the last century. On television, we’ve had Dallas and Dynasty, most famously, but also Six Feet Under, The Sopranos, Nashville, The O.C., Revenge, Big Love, and Parenthood, and dozens more. And one of the things uniting all of those shows is whiteness — Italian-American whiteness, Californian whiteness, country whiteness, but whiteness nonetheless.
Yet what distinguishes Empire, as well as The CW’s Jane the Virgin — the two most recent (and successful) entries into the category — is their near exclusion of whiteness, and the ways in which that exclusion liberates both shows to focus on issues specific to their subjects and their places in America.
On the surface, the premise of Jane the Virgin sounds straight-up ridiculous: A woman is accidentally artificially inseminated and becomes pregnant with the baby of her wealthy boss. There’s much more to the story, but the premise primarily rotates around the axis of Jane (Gina Rodriguez); her immediate family; the father of her baby, Rafael (Justin Baldoni); and their future as a closely bound if totally untraditional family. Oh, and nearly everyone is Latino. Because both Jane the Virgin and Empire blatantly invert the ethnocentricity that guides most network television series, in which people of color serve to support the white main characters that dominate the narrative.
While melodrama is distinguished by its embrace and accentuation of emotion, one of the genre’s most radical achievements has always been its ability to explore “heavy” and uncomfortable massive societal issues by mapping them onto personal. Thus, otherwise easily dismissible and/or readily watchable narratives become ones of love and family. As a result, the personal doesn’t become political so much as the political becomes embodied. In simple or straightforward melodrama, that characterization is as simple as good and evil, right and wrong: unquestionable hero against equally unquestionable evil.
But in the family melodrama, it becomes much more. The first gay characters showed up in a made-for-TV movie (read: melodrama) all the way back in 1972; a “football show” like Friday Night Lights played out narratives of class and abortion; and a procedural melodrama like Scandal makes the politics of an interracial romance its fundamental source of conflict.
And in the worlds of Empire and Jane the Virgin, each character takes on an attitude or ideology, often accentuated or dictated by his/her generation. Empire is composed of aforementioned producer Lucious Lyon (Howard), his three sons, his fresh-out-of-jail ex-wife Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), and his quest to find a successor for Empire Entertainment before he succumbs to ALS. Lucious is the ruthless father, desperate to pass along his legacy as he hides the fatal illness that will wrest away his power. He also represents a distinctly old-school attitude not only to hip-hop, but work ethics and sexual politics. In the first 10 minutes of the pilot, he tells a group of investors that he started selling drugs as a child simply to survive on the street, and makes it clear that he thinks “sissies,” like his middle, gay son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), have no place in hip-hop.
Beside Lucious, there’s Cookie, his equally pragmatic ex-wife, hardened by nearly 20 years in prison. She’s unruly, disrespectful, and brassy, with a particular attitude toward adversity: If someone says no, she reasons, make them say yes.
The Lyon sons each represent a different path to success: Andre (Trai Byers), the eldest, has gone full bourgie, attending Penn, marrying a white woman (Kaitlin Doubleday), stripping his voice of accent and his conversation of language that could mark him as other. He also lacks the musical skills of his younger brothers, seemingly doomed to disappoint. Middle brother Jamal’s gayness also works to mark him as emotional: He plays John Legend-like piano riffs that barely mask the inner turmoil of his father’s implicit rejection. And the youngest, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) — with his swagger and aggressive womanizing — takes up the role of the stereotypical rapper: talented, entitled, abrasive, the sort of young black man who’s not “a credit to his race.”
Over the handful of episodes, however, each character has complicated the trajectory of his or her type: Cookie is self-conscious, Jamal is ambitious, Hakeem is insecure. But each represents a slightly different take on what it means to be black in America, with corresponding attitudes toward the politics of respectability, the achievement of the American Dream, or how to manifest love and sadness and fear.
Jane the Virgin illustrates a similar dynamic, spread out over the three generations of Villanueva women, and defined, broadly, by the politics of immigration. There’s the eldest generation — Alba (Ivonne Coll) — who lacks papers and lives in constant fear of deportation. She regularly communicates in Spanish; she’s fiercely religious; it’s on her request that her granddaughter Jane vow to remain a virgin until marriage.
Alba’s daughter, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), is an American citizen, embodying the first-gen immigration ethic. She’s also defined by her resistance to her mother: She got pregnant at 16; she sleeps around; she loves dancing. Pious she is not. She rarely, if ever, speaks Spanish, and is generally a disaster at replicating the signifiers of her culture, especially when it comes to food.
Jane represents a fusion of the ideologies embodied by her mother, Xo, and her grandmother, Alba. She speaks and understands Spanish; she respects her grandmother’s wishes for her to remain a virgin. She’s working her way through school; she’s respectful and loving but focused on avoiding the mistakes of her mother. She’s a proud, fully integrated American, speaking with accentless English, and shopping at Target.
Other characters represent even further ideas of what it means to be Latino/a in America, like the privileged Miami playboy in the case of Rafael, and the hilariously gaudy telenovela star with Jane's biological father Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil). Like Empire, Jane the Virgin doesn’t suggest that these are the only ways of being Latino/a in America, but they are several of the examples which, when thrown together, act out the various tensions and glories of working out identity over a day, a year, a lifetime.
Interactions between family members — and, by extension, the ideologies they represent — are amplified by proximity. Apart from an occasional trip to a club or the back of a car, the primary homes and offices of Empire feel as claustrophobic as the emotional space real estate collapses in. Same with Jane the Virgin, which limits its locations to the Villanueva home and the hotel owned by Rafael.
Some of the overlaps makes sense; others are unlikely. But plausibility matters less than the way in which the proximity accelerates and amplifies the narrative. It’s like real life, on steroids. Every door slam bears intense meaning: It’s not just anger; it’s literally shutting the door on a past life or action. Lucious shoving a young Jamal in the garbage can, Cookie taking the head of the dinner table, Rogelio gifting Jane with a car, and the loss of Abuela’s rosary all become pregnant with narrative-altering significance.
And then there’s the aesthetics. In melodrama, excess overflows into the mise-en-scene, manifesting in wardrobe, set, weather, everything. On Jane the Virgin, it happens most overtly (and deliciously) in the scenes from the telenovela on which Rogelio stars that is nested within the series. The painted sunset and exotic jungle reflect Rogelio’s grand emotional gestures and his latest object of affection. (Or a recent episode, in which the intense turmoil between characters overflowed into….an actual hurricane).
Jane the Virgin showrunner Jennie Urman has discussed how she worked with set designers to create specific palettes for each character and set: Jane in blues, the hotel bathed in light, and no one, ever, in red. That aesthetic might seem like a natural extension of the show’s Miami setting, but it also communicates the way in which Jane attempts to solve its inherent conflicts: This is a show in which operating in the open — in truth and transparency — is valorized.
By comparison, the palette of Empire is replete with the deep veneers of dark lipstick and black Escalades, the lushness of fur and deep velvet. It’s a show obsessed with texture and surface, which reflects its narrative concern with image and the ways in which the performance thereof can mask the darkness and despair within. Several characters live some variation of a double life — a tension that plays out in the deep contrasts between the spotlights and dark corners that characterize the nightclub, the press conference, even the bank of the river where Lucious orchestrates [SPOILER ALERT] the execution of his longtime confidant.
Wardrobe also always contributes to character, but it becomes particularly significant in melodrama: Jane’s sundresses reflect her modest, sunny disposition; Xiomara’s cut-off jean shorts and wedges tell you everything you need to know about the type of woman she wants to be.
On Empire, Cookie's lush outfits communicate loudly, especially when compared to her ex-husband's new wife's ensembles — the former debutante looks like she walked out of an Ann Taylor catalogue. The two would clash regardless, but their clashing style highlights their varying upbringings, worldviews, and expressions of femininity that undergird their conflict.
Only with a family melodrama can clothing mean that much, addressing enduring tensions of class, skin color, and assimilation within the black community. And only with a family melodrama, can a show on The CW explicitly address the practice of “medical repatriation,” in which undocumented immigrants, once hospitalized, can be deported back to their country, even when gravely ill. Because these issues of identity are embedded into the very details of every scene, they feel far less didactic and hackneyed than the after-school specials or “very special episodes” of the ‘80s and ‘90s that attempted to reduce larger issues into a single plotline.
There’s a potential danger, of course, in transforming systemic issues into ones that primarily take place on the level of the individual. It encourages audiences to view change for one person — Alma’s narrow avoidance of medical repatriation, for example — as enough. Systemic problems remain, but the salvation of the individual character,with whom the audience has connected, feels cathartic. Melodrama can depict and narrativize these issues, then, but it can also inoculate viewers from doing anything about them.
But there’s only so much straightforward thinking one can do about a particular issue: You can read the news, contemplate the tragedies of an issue, feel sad, post to Facebook, join a protest. What melodrama enacts, then, is a sort of narrative that not only makes Latino and African-Americans protagonists in their own narratives — instead of guest stars and plotpoints in others — but encourages people who might feel alienated or distant from those struggles to identify not necessarily with the particulars of existence, but the universalities of the human experience.
The emotionality and excess that make it easy to dismiss Jane the Virgin and Empire are also an entryway to a world that some might not otherwise consider. These shows aren’t what some term “quality television,” and even Gina Rodriguez’s Golden Globe win for her turn as Jane isn’t enough to make many take it seriously. But that doesn’t mean these melodramatic shows aren’t doing some of the most important, unique, and even progressive work on television today.