Imagine a glass of velvety-smooth red wine, accompanied by a succulent and juicy medium-rare steak. Yes, that divine combination is no different from the interweaving of music and television series, creating a perfect combination with entertains us and soothing our soul through mellow tunes. Popular examples include our all-time favourite coming of age series, “Glee“, which expertly intertwines covers of popular songs to highlight the dilemma of the protagonists. More popular modern examples include the Rachel Bloom-fronted “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend“, a hilarious comedy which intricately blends ludicrous songs into its storylines.
Usually argued to be musicals in their own right, the advent of musical television series has not stopped at just these few examples. The juggernauts which dominate this specific niche are the “Nashville” and “Empire“, both of which are immensely impressive series with breath-taking characters, mellifluous melodies, and dramatic storylines. Yet, the recent surge in popularity of Empire (mainly due to its infancy) has led to a drastic decline in the popularity of Nashville, to the point where it risks cancellation.
In direct comparison with each other, how exactly do these series fare with respect to their casting, music, artistic slant and entertainment aspects? Come follow my train of thought as I aim to discuss this one perplexing question – the heart-wrenching choice between Nashville or Empire.
(Of course, if you have nothing better to do you can always watch both…)
Empire is an exceptionally strong contender in this field. Helmed by the exceptionally formidable Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, or I would more famously term as the “Queen of the Ghetto Streets”, Empire boasts an all-star ensemble, which includes other equally-adept co-actors Jussie Smollett who delivered an exceptionally nuanced role as Jamal Lyon, Terence Howard as Lucious Lyon, the fistful ruler of the Empire Entertainment; as well as the various guest cameos from supermodel Naomi Campbell, musical icons Estelle, Ne-Yo, and even the Princess of R&B, Alicia Keys herself! (We’re still in awe over that gorgeous “Powerful” duet between Alicia and Jussie)
Nashville, I would argue, boasts a much weaker cast in terms of their acting capabilities. Hayden Panettiere‘s contrived role as an exceptionally erratic and crazed Juliette Barnes (especially in the recent season) wore thin after a couple of episodes that were essentially the same scenes: drinking, partying and shutting herself aloof from the world. Hard as Sam Palladio tried, I genuinely believed that his character as Gunner Scott added no value whatsoever to driving the plot forward, apart from being an exceptionally decent harmoniser to Clare Bowen, who had several impactful storylines as the petite Scarlett O’Connor. However, her character made literally no progression and development from when she first started out. with her remaining the same shy little girl she was.
In terms of musical potential, however, I believe that the Nashville cast are ahead of that of the Empire ensemble by leaps and bounds. Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio sound like lovelorn nightingales, singing their souls out when harmonising on their duets (“Fade Into You“, “When The Right One Comes Along“). Lennon and Maisy Stella are quite possibly one of the most perfect and in-sync duos which I have heard in my entire life, with their genuine and heartfelt cover of “Ho Hey” by The Lumineers. Charles Esten‘s deep and rooted voice, coupled with his tender approach at his melodic verses, renders him to be the epitome of perfection for country music. Also, Hayden Panettiere brings about a pop edge to the standard country songs (think Taylor Swift), giving the songs a greater form of variety on the show.
With regards to music, both shows produce music of different genres, and therefore, I really believe that this boils down to an issue of personal preference.
Nashville, tangibly (since it is all so ostensibly named after the state itself), is a show based upon country music. Though many among our generation (or geography) may not appreciate country music (I may be overgeneralising here, but please chill if you feel vindicated over being neglected, despite belonging to part of that non-existent minority), I feel that the music of Nashville resonates with me to a much greater extent.
Country music may feature banjos as opposed to the repetitive electronic beats that we’ve become so accustomed to. Yet, beneath these obvious instrumental differences, country music has so much more lyrical depth to it then the cookie-cutter pop tunes which we are so used to. For example, Clare Bowen’s rendition of “Every Time I Fall In Love” is exceptionally melodic, sublime, and gorgeous, holding its position as one of my all-time favourite tunes on my (widely believed to be epistolary) playlist. Clare Bowen also performed an exceptionally emotional performance of “Black Roses“, a song which the show smartly interpreted to be about the pain between an abusive mother-daughter relationship; substantially transforming it from what the original writer had intended to be a relationship gone sour between two lovers. The musical depth and courage to transform songs to fit the context of different scenes definitely makes the music of Nashville utterly memorable and lyrically expansive.
Empire, on the other hand, deals more with hip-hop, rap and our favourite pop tunes. Definitely, Empire has produced powerful ballads which I’ve loved. Empire has also produced emotive hits such as Jussie Smollett’s “Good Enough“, echoing his rather complex relationship with his father because of the latter’s inherent homophobia. Empire also has my favourite song “Drip Drop“, which has proven to be ridiculously catchy, despite holding absolutely no lyrical meaning whatsoever. Good luck getting “drip, drop, drippitty drop” out of your head.
However, in terms of the emotive depth and quality of songs, especially with the musical superstars which Empire had guesting on its show, the songs, unfortunately, are a massive letdown as opposed to the country music gems which I have discovered on Nashville. Decent as they might be, I just find myself unable to connect to these songs lyrically, which leads me to award this segment to Nashville.
In terms of its treatment of real-world social issues, this is where Nashville trumps over Empire. Though Nashville might not have produced exceptionally catchy pop music, or created very relatable characters, however, the fortitude of the writers to take on touchy issues is one aspect of the show which I’ve always loved. Instead of being a one-dimensional show that focuses on romance and music, Nashville is so much more complex in the sense that it infuses and tackles issues with substantial magnitude, as opposed to dodging them completely.
Nashville has very acutely dealt with the issue of homosexuality through the stellar portrayal of a confused Will Lexington, who actually developed throughout the series to learn to eventually accept himself for who he is, though he still struggles with this fact occasionally. Moreover, Nashville also took up the issue of euthanasia and interwove it into several episodes, creating intense moments of regret, loss and forgiveness, thrusting us into a web of emotions and bringing us on an emotional ride with their carefully-constructed characters, as opposed to dismissing it in a single episode to a mere push of a button. Nashville dealt with this by portraying the complex emotions which Scarlet felt before eventually deciding to release her comatose mother through euthanasia for a better good: organ donation. This careful juxtaposition of her reaction with that of her disapproving and guilt-ridden Uncle’s (Charles Esten) made for an emotional viewing. Furthermore, Nashville also took the strides to deal with Postpartum Depression (PPD), a post-pregnancy disorder which many shows simply dismiss as inconsequential (though in my opinion, they absolutely botched it with Hayden’s over-the-top acting of an unbelievably-crazy Juliette Barnes). Still, credit ought to be given where its due and definitely, Nashville’s desire to make the show an inclusive one to appeal to generations from all walks of life ought to be applauded.
Empire on the other hand, lacks sophistication and depth in the treatment of its social issues. Though I do understand that the intent of the show was to simulate a “ghetto” feel, the downright and blatant satirical jokes used to poke fun at black people through racist jokes of (“Vernon, kiss my black ass“) or even the homophobic slurs of (“shut up, Dora“), both of which are lines delivered flawlessly by the exceptionally talented Taraji P. Henson, highlights the fundamental problem of the show: it lacks depth and is here merely for entertainment purposes.
Now, this is not to be mistaken for a sign of the show being inferior because I absolutely adore Empire, with its hilarious one-liners. However, I do wish that the producers could have put in more thought to structuring the show. With its wide audience range and hilarious dialogues, Empire could certainly serve a bigger purpose then purely entertainment, perhaps it could be used to help highlight the still-prevalent disparities between the American people, or maybe shed greater awareness onto pigeonholing of African-American artists to hip-hop music, as opposed to traversing into pop or soul music, though they did very briefly tinker and experiment with a similar idea on Alicia Keys’ cameo on Empire.
This is an area which Empire totally stampedes all over Nashville. At the heart of what television shows are, they primarily serve a simple function: to entertain and captivate their audience, an aspect which Empire has thrived in remarkably, especially with Taraji playing Cookie Lyon, the maternal lioness of Empire. Her snide remarks, acerbic humours, and diva personality elevates the show to a whole new level. Her numerous sarcastic insults (“the streets ain’t made for everybody, that’s why they invented sidewalks“) or her hilarious name-calling-turned-slut-shaming-turned-bitch-fights with her love nemesis Anika, or “Boo Boo Kitty”, have resonated deeply with the viewers, galvanising for her an army of loyal fans.
More importantly, beneath that ostentatious diva complexity which she manifests, she has a sympathetic backstory which morphed her into the character she is today. Primarily, as a mother, she sacrificed her freedom and went to jail for her family to allow them to have a better life. At the heart of all her actions, she is governed by her natural motherly instincts to reconnect with and protect her lion cubs. The humanisation of such a character produces depth, allowing the viewers to sympathise with her and root for her to succeed in the show. Therefore, the ability of the show to produce such a multi-faceted and simultaneously, hilarious character with her ludicrous and mean insults, makes her one well-loved asset of the show.
Moreover, there are constant power scuffles in Empire, which leaves viewers on the edge of their seats, excited to guess who would come into power to inherit the Empire. The treachery of all three of Lucious’ sons against each other in order to gain the Empire throne makes for a rather interesting watch. Through this process, it also helps to shape their character, most significantly displayed through Jamal, being willing to go to any lengths (coercion, violence etc.) to achieve his endgame of controlling the Empire. Yet, complex shaping occurs again to add a different dimension to the perception of him as a power-hungry beast. Despite what he has done or is willing to do, he still fundamentally cares for his brother. He continuously provides his brother, Hakeem with musical help when needed. The clever juxtaposition of his brotherhood with his power-hungry ego renders him to be an interesting character to watch. And definitely, Jussie Smollett deserves credit as well for nailing this subtle nuance.
In this aspect, Nashville falls flat on the characters, which are the fundamental building blocks of the show. The characters on Nashville tend to be somewhat flat and lead rather monotonous lives, unless we are interested in scrutinising Scarlett’s love life with nearly every single male character her age on the show. Connie Britton’s repeated rows with Charles Esten over his drinking problem as an alcoholic on the show may have been interesting for one season. However, to stretch this aspect for nearly all four seasons as a recurring problem and fall right back into it when writing the scripts for future seasons might indicate a lack of creativity in terms of driving the plot forward.
Sure enough, to spice up the show, Nashville took to the most fundamental of all solutions, the killing of characters to generate impact, shock, and rage amongst viewers, in a desperate attempt to keep them glued. Honestly, I really believed that they would have attempted to murder a significant character, to breathe some form of life into their drudge of a plot. Yet, all they did was to humanise their side antagonist (Jeff Fordham) and make him likeable, before killing him off in the next episode. The lack of conviction to kill off significant characters for a much required cast change to breathe fresh life into their show (Note: “Homeland” does an excellent job at this) has made Nashville’s plot to be as eventful as a stroll along a highway.
Although the 2 shows mentioned above may be somewhat similar in terms of them both being music television series, however, they are, ultimately, structured to appeal to audiences from different walks of life.
The lyrical depth and emotionally-expansive journey which Nashville brings its viewers through may be better suited for sensitive individuals who are more interested in the music, as opposed to the content of the show. On the other hand, Empire’s hilarious dialogues (mainly featuring Cookie), consistent catfights and continuous power struggles may appeal to a younger audience who are watching for entertainment, as opposed to appreciating a show for just its music.
Also, it might not be entirely fair to compare Nashville and Empire at this very juncture, considering that Nashville has been on the market for quite some time, lasting all the way into its fourth season now (we can’t possibly expect every series to be like “Grey’s Anatomy“). Meanwhile, Empire is a breath of fresh air: a show hot off the press which recently kickstarted its second season. Seeing how Nashville started out so well and floundered on its subsequent seasons, only time will tell if Empire will fall into the same trap, or break from the mould and come out strong. However, considering the massive disappointment which Season 2 had been as compared to Season 1, I am genuinely not optimistic for the continual of Empire as that “hit music series” which Fox has so heavily promoted.
Yet considering that I’m such a basic bitch- I mean, youthful adult, the choice for me is an obvious one. All hail Taraji as Queen Cookie. Oh, and just a note of caution: if you are choosing one of the two shows to recommend to a friend, and your friend is about as holy as Virgin Mary and has an absolute no-go with profanities, strike Empire off your checklist. In terms of spewing vulgarities, Cookie can probably school a bunch of gangsters, even with her jaw paralysed.