The pilot was a success, garnering praise for Taraji P. Henson's portrayal of Cookie Lyon. The series premiered on January 7, 2015 to nearly 10 million viewers while the first-season finale was watched by 17 million viewers.
On April 30, 2019, Fox renewed the show for a sixth and final season. It premiered on September 24, 2019.
Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is a hip hop mogul, former drug dealer, and CEO of Empire Entertainment. Informed of his own imminent early death from a certain medical condition, Lucious is forced to choose from amongst his progeny, a successor who will control his dynasty after his demise. He begins working to groom one of his three sons to take over the family business – Empire CFO Andre (Trai Byers), R&B singer-songwriter Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and rapper Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). In the process, Lucious pits them against each other. Lucious' ex-wife Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) is released from prison after serving a 17-year sentence, and also pulls for control of both the company and of her sons.
A former drug dealer turned hip-hop mogul and the founder and long-time CEO of Empire Entertainment, his life begins to cave in around him after his past sins come back to haunt him when he is diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
Lucious' outspoken wife and mother of his three sons. She serves a 17-year prison sentence for drug dealing and sees herself as the sacrificial lamb for Empire Entertainment, which she built with Lucious, but then took the fall for him while running the very drugs that financed Lucious' early career. Upon her return from prison, she is determined to bring the Lyon family back together and reclaim her share of Empire Entertainment. In the second season, Cookie leaves the Empire group and starts her own record label, Lyon Dynasty. After allowing Empire Entertainment to acquire Lyon Dynasty, she returns to Empire as co-CEO and Head of A&R.
Lucious' fame-obsessed youngest son and his favorite child, who is a hip hop star on the rise. Initially combative towards his mother Cookie, Hakeem starts to become friendlier towards her, and has a great relationship with his older brother Jamal. He has had romantic relationships with Tiana, Camilla, Anika, Valentina, and Laura.
The middle son of the Lyon family, he is a talented gay singer-songwriter who despises the corporate aspect of the music industry. Jamal is estranged from his father, who considers him the black sheep of the family. Jamal is Cookie's favorite and has a strong relationship with his brother Hakeem. Lucious appoints Jamal as his successor at the end of the first season, and later as interim CEO when Lucious is arrested. Jamal later relinquishes control of Empire back to Lucious. After being accidentally shot by Freda Gatz in Season 2, Jamal begins to present symptoms of PTSD and a reliance on painkillers. His addiction ultimately leads to a visit to rehab. Smollet's character was removed from the last two episodes of the fifth season after Smollett was indicted on charges of staging an assault against himself. Smollett's character does not return for the sixth and final season but he is heavily mentioned.
The eldest son of the Lyon family and CFO of Empire Entertainment. He is Wharton educated, power hungry, and has bipolar disorder. He is married to his college sweetheart, Rhonda. He plans to run Empire, but is in a battle for the head chair with his younger brothers. In the second season, Andre initially helps Cookie and Hakeem set up Lyon Dynasty, but returns to Empire. Lucious later promotes Andre to President of Gutter Life Records, a sub-division of Empire Entertainment consisting of mainly urban rappers, such as Freda Gatz. In Season 3, 4 & 5, he loses his wife and becomes involved with Nessa, Charlotte, Pamela and Teri (the latter who becomes his new wife in the season 5 finale).
Grace Byers as Anika "Boo Boo Kitty" Calhoun (seasons 1–4)
Initially the ambitious head of Empire Entertainment's A&R department, she becomes engaged to Lucious though they will eventually separate. After leaving Empire, Anika has sex with Hakeem and becomes pregnant. Fearful of Rhonda's pregnancy, as Rhonda's unborn child has claim to being the heir of Empire, Anika pushes Rhonda down a set of stairs, leading to the death of Rhonda's unborn child. Cookie and Anika share an extreme dislike for one another, with Cookie referring to Anika by the derisive nickname "Boo Boo Kitty". She dies in the season 4 finale.
Lucious's longtime friend and business partner, and chairman of Empire Entertainment. In the season one finale, Vernon is struck and killed by Rhonda, when he attacks Andre, and both end up hiding the body.
Andre's wife is a "ride-or-die chick" who is extremely fierce and loyal, and sticks by Andre's side as he tries to gain control of Empire. In the first-season finale she finds out that she is pregnant, but Anika pushes her down the stairs in the second season fall finale, and the baby dies in the second-season spring premiere. After her recovery, Rhonda begins to work for Empire's fashion label, "Antony and Cleopatra", initially run by Camilla Marks-Whiteman. After Camilla's suicide, Rhonda is appointed Creative Director of Antony and Cleopatra. In the third-season premiere, she attacks Anika due to finding out Anika had pushed her down the stairs earlier in the season, causing her to lose her unborn son. As a result, she falls off the building she and Anika were fighting on, lands on a car, and dies. She makes numerous appearances to Andre as a ghost during his hallucinations in the third season.
Gabourey Sidibe as Rebecca "Becky" Williams (season 2–6; recurring in season 1)
Executive assistant to Lucious at Empire Entertainment. After Jamal's promotion to Vice Chairman, Jamal promotes Becky to A&R at Empire and its sub-label, Gutter Life Records. In season 4, she had taken Anika's position as Head of A&R requested by Cookie.
Serayah as Tiana Brown–Lyon (seasons 2–6; recurring in season 1)
An artist at Empire Entertainment who becomes Hakeem's girlfriend for some time. In season two, she leaves Empire for Lyon Dynasty. She also starts to get jealous of the relationship Hakeem has with Laura. In Season 3, she and Hakeem rekindle their relationship. At the beginning of Season 4 she remains happy being with Hakeem and looks after his daughter Bella whilst Anika is in jail. Halfway through the season she gets manipulated by Eddie Barker and turns down a proposal made by Hakeem. She continues to be manipulated by Eddie and becomes Empire's number one artist. After Hakeem tries to warn her about Eddie she breaks up with him again, but they quickly get back together after Tiana reveals to Hakeem that she's pregnant. Tiana's lovers were Gram (season 3) and Devon (season 5—6).
Bre-Z as Freda Gathers/"Freda Gatz" (season 3; recurring in season 2)
A female rapper, who becomes a surrogate daughter to Lucious after the murder of her father, Frank Gathers. Lucious later sets up Freda to become Hakeem's rival.
Hotshot, Silicon Valley genius turned interim leader of Empire Entertainment. He is Ivy League educated with an edge and a dark secret. Lucious' illegitimate son. In the season five finale, Jeff commits suicide in front of Lucious, and his heart is given to Andre for a heart transplant.
Vivica A. Fox as Candace Holloway Mason (season 6; seasons 2-5 recurring)
Cookie's well-behaved but snobby and judgmental older sister. She is a realtor.
Mario as Devon (season 6; season 5 recurring): Lucious' new artist and Tiana's new love interest.
On June 2, 2015, it was announced Adam Rodriguez would join the cast in a recurring role in the second season of Empire, portraying Laz Delgado, a potential love interest for Cookie.
In 2016, Phylicia Rashad was cast as a recurring guest star in the role of Diana DuBois in the third season of Empire.
In February 2017, Rumer Willis joined the third season of Empire in a recurring role.
Smollett in 2016
On January 22, 2019, Jussie Smollett filed a police report about a threatening letter sent to Fox Studios, where Empire is filmed. According to Smollett, the letter contained "threatening language" and a powdery substance believed to be crushed-up Tylenol. On January 29, 2019, Smollett reported that he was attacked by two men who shouted "homophobic and racial slurs" at him and then threw an "unknown chemical substance" on him. Smollett told police that they wrapped a rope around his neck, yelled "MAGA country", which references President Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" (MAGA) slogan. Smollett was then hospitalized.
On February 13, Chicago police arrested two "persons of interest". However, on February 14, 2019, it was revealed that police were investigating whether Smollett and the two men staged the attack because Smollett believed he was being written off Empire. Interrogations revealed that both men, the Osundairo brothers, were allegedly paid off by Smollett to stage the attack. On February 20, 2019, Smollett was indicted for filing a false police report. He faces a maximum of three years in prison.
Subsequently, Smollett was removed from the last two episodes of the fifth season. In a written statement, the show's producers said that "While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays... We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of 'Jamal' from the final two episodes of the season."
On March 26, it was announced that the charges against Smollett had been dropped, although he remains under federal investigation regarding a hate letter that is believed to have been written by Smollett himself. The fate of Smollett's character 'Jamal' currently remains unclear.
On April 30, 2019, it was announced that although Fox Entertainment had extended Smollett's contract for season six of Empire, there were no plans for the character to appear during the season.
On June 4, 2019, series co-creator Lee Daniels officially announced that Smollett would not be returning for the sixth and final season.
As executive music Producer, Timbaland, co-songwriter/producer Jim Beanz, and a team of other musical collaborators took their cues from the writing team, which gave them an idea of where the plot is headed, and craft songs to fit those themes. However, the musical aspect of the series is very reality based, unlike Fox's last musical series, Glee, performances come with the organic development of the characters as artists, much like the performances featured in the ABC prime-time country musical drama Nashville.
Any licensed songs and composer Fil Eisler's score are added after the episodes are filmed. The pilot itself consists of 12 songs.Columbia Records releases weekly soundtracks of Empire on the iTunes Store, the same strategy used with Glee. In May 2015, Fox announced that Ne-Yo and J.R. Rotem would write music for the show's second season, joining Timbaland. Timbaland left Empire after season 2, and were replaced for season 3 by Rodney "Darkchild" Jerkins and Esther Dean.
On September 8, 2015, Scott Hoying and Mitch Grassi from Pentatonix arranged a medley of songs from the first season of Empire and posted it on their shared YouTube comedy/music channel, Superfruit. The video was sponsored by the Fox Broadcasting Company.
Columbia Records released the official soundtrack of Empire’s first season on March 10, 2015. The soundtrack consists of 11 songs and the deluxe version consists of 18 songs, all performed on the show. As of October 2015, the album has sold 439,000 total copies in the United States. Additional releases have followed for subsequent seasons.
For season 6, four songs from the premiere episode were released in advance of the season, and two new songs will be released each week ahead of each new episode.
Empire was set to premiere in Australia on February 19, 2015 on Network Ten; however, a week out from this date it was dumped from the schedule and pushed back. It ultimately premiered on March 1, 2015, to a disappointing 377,000 total viewers, although it fared better with viewers in younger demographics. The second season was broadcast on Eleven from September 29, 2015.
In Canada, the series was simulcast on Omni Television (Omni 2). The fourth episode and the season finale would also air on City, a sibling broadcast network. Sibling cable network FX Canada would also air a marathon of the show on March 14 and 15, 2015. The show moved to City starting in the 2015–16 season, but was dropped from their lineup after the first half of the second season due to low ratings; Fox affiliates are widely available on pay television as well as over-the-air in some areas. Shomi, a subscription streaming service co-owned by City's parent company Rogers Communications, began to add new episodes following their U.S. premiere on Fox. A representative of the service stated that Empire was among its ten most popular programs.
Empire started broadcasting in the UK on E4 with the first episode airing on April 28, 2015.5Star have since taken over the rights as of Season 4. The series premiered in India on STAR World Premiere HD on April 24, 2015 (only in high-definition). Later, on July 14, 2015, Empire also premiered on FX India (both in standard and high definition) with the Season 1 finale airing on July 29, 2015. Empire premiered on June 24, 2015 in Germany on Pro Sieben, with the Pilot reaching 930,000 viewers. In Finland, the show premiered on Sub on December 2, 2015.
In South Africa, the show premiered on e.tv on February 3, 2016. In Serbia series start January 23, 2016 on Fox it aired Thursdays at 10pm.
In the United States, TV One have the exclusive cable rerun rights.
Empire has received positive reviews from critics. The praise has gone towards the cast, particularly Howard and Henson.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the first season has a rating of 84%, based on 49 reviews, with an average rating of 7.24/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Though heavy on melodrama, Empire elevates the nighttime soap with its top-notch cast, musical entertainment, and engrossing plots." On Metacritic the show has a score of 72 out of 100, based on 39 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". For the second season, the score rose a few points higher, further praising the performances of Henson and Howard, the character development, plot development, and the show's self-awareness for being a soap opera. On Rotten Tomatoes, the second season has a 87% "Certified Fresh" with an average rating of 7.54/10 from critics and a score of 77 from Metacritic, indicating "generally positive reviews".
The show's premiere ranked as Fox's highest-rated debut in three years. Viewership has increased continuously; Empire is the first primetime broadcast series in at least 23 years to have its viewership increase week to week for its first five episodes. The show continues to increase its viewership with further episodes. Episodes of the show have also been heavily watched on Video on Demand and other streaming services. As of its first season finale, Empire has now surpassed The Big Bang Theory as the highest rated scripted program in the 2014–2015 television season. The first season finale is also the highest rated debut season finale since May 2005, when Grey's Anatomy ended its first season. Empire's season one finale grew 82 percent from its series premiere, making it the show that has grown the most over the course of its first season since Men in Trees during the 2006–2007 season.