How the Biggest TV Shows Are Weaving In the Big Issues

‘Empire’ is one of the season’s most popular television shows, but it’s about more than just a dysfunctional entertainment-industry family.
(Photo: Courtesy Fox)
Mar 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

During the season finale of the hugely popular Fox soap opera Empire Wednesday night, the show sent more than a few socially charged messages to its loyal audience of more than 16 million. During a press conference in one scene, the singer Patti LaBelle gives a shout-out to Black Lives Matter by announcing that proceeds from a concert with Rita Ora, Juicy J, and Jennifer Hudson will benefit the activist movement.

The hip-hop family drama not only blends real-life pop stars into its fictional record label but also folds of-the-moment issues such as LGBT rights and mental illness into the glitzy, melodramatic story lines—without interrupting the show’s fantastical narrative, which often hinges on sex, money, drugs, and violence.

Empire isn’t the only show on television that’s seamlessly integrating social issues without relying on them to advance the plot. We’ve rounded up advice from the minds behind some of TV’s most innovative shows to talk about addressing race, gender, and sexuality while keeping the story specific and authentic.

Danny Strong, cocreator, Empire: “One of the great things about our show is we can do that. The finale is not a race episode whatsoever, but, all of a sudden, we can just throw that in, and it’s perfectly organic to the storytelling. In Empire, we’re able to look at social issues that are important and to keep discussing them in a way that’s not preachy or in your face. It’s just completely organic, because in the real world that would happen. I love that we get to do that on the show.” (via Deadline)

Lena Dunham, creator, Girls: “I and we do care deeply about politics and do care deeply about things that are happening in the United States right now, particularly to women, particularly to women of color, particularly when it comes to reproductive rights.... So while we don’t set out to be didactic or turn our show into a Trojan horse about all our ideas about who you should vote for, the natural truth about our politics comes through in what we are doing so we can fully tell stories. We tell stories not just about the world we live in but about the world we want to live in.” (via The Hollywood Reporter)

Andrew Haigh, executive producer, Looking: “You want it to be universal. The minute you start to become specific about these characters, you start to see that their concerns and struggles [are] universal. The notion that gay people are completely different from anybody else...well, of course they’re not. We all have similar desires and similar needs. And I think that struggle and search for intimacy and connection is such a universal one, and it’s what we wanted to focus on.” (via The Atlantic)

Jennie Snyder, show runner, Jane the Virgin: “I think the more specific you get with characters, the less they become stereotypical.... It’s about I think just writing characters and writing people and not just writing race, but at the same time understanding that that is one of many components that makes a character: their ethnicity, their socioeconomic standing, and how religious they are, and all of those things. And I tried to really just make Jane specific, and make all of those characters specific, and that’s how I approached it.” (via “PaleyFest L.A.: Jane the Virgin”)