'Empire' Cast Tackles Diversity, 'Dynasty' and Terrence Howard During Presser Victory Lap

Empire TV Still - H 2014

Empire TV Still - H 2014

Fox has no shortage of reasons to be thankful for Empire.

The top-rated freshman premiere of this TV season, it came out of the gate strong two weeks ago and even managed to grow in its second episode. That feat brought a celebratory tone to the network's Saturday appearance at the Television Critics Association press tour, when, just a few weeks ago, Fox's steep fall to No. 4 among the broadcast networks would have taken the spotlight.

With that in mind, it's no surprise that Fox saved Empire for the end of the day. The cast and production team, which flew in that morning from a late-night shoot in Chicago, was applauded like the music icons they're playing by Fox brass in the back of the room. And each of the stars was all-smiles on stage — even when the line of questioning from reporters got a little awkward.

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"I think you're seeing shows with people of color can make money," surmised Taraji P. Henson, referring to both Empire's success and the warm reception for other diverse series. "When you can make money, people are interested."

Fox is certainly interested. Just two weeks into its first season, the network officially picked it up for a sophomore run earlier in the day. "People want to see people who look like themselves, and they want to see people who don't look like themselves," added Jussie Smollett. "The world is not one color."

Their aggressive tackling of homophobia in the black community and the show's campy leanings — "Black Dynasty" is an affectionate nickname — were popular subjects over the ensuing Q&A, the latter prompting a variety of responses from a panel not entirely ready to commit to the label of "soap."

"They embrace the soap opera genre, but they don't run away with it," said showrunner Ilene Chaiken, looking to co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong. "It's just as big, grand and flamboyant, but they found a world to set it in that makes it feel true. It's something those other shows never had."

If there was one tense moment in the panel, it was swiftly smoothed over by a prepared Terrence Howard. Following Fox chiefs Dana Walden and Gary Newman being asked about the actor's controversial past, which includes several accusations of domestic violence, two reporters prompted Howard to speak about the topic.

"A lot of the things I did were the product of not knowing how to deal with frustration, not knowing who Terrence Howard is," he offered, thanking his co-stars and producers for the opportunity to lead the show. "I've grown so much from anything that's happened in the past."