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How 'Empire' and Taraji P. Henson are rehabilitating soap-opera women

Primetime Emmy nominations came out last week, and Empire creator Lee Daniels responded to his breakout, unabashedly soapy hit’s lack of laurels in the Outstanding Drama category with a profanity-laced tirade that he later clarified was just him “having fun.”

I believe him. Any serious fan of soap operas—primetime or daytime—has to know that the former should never expect much love come Emmy time.

Even when “Who Shot JR?” was the hottest question around the world, Dallas, the show that spawned it, only managed a single win in 1980, for Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie) as Outstanding Lead Actress. It was the show’s sole trophy in a major category for the duration of its run.

Dynasty, which ultimately bested Dallas in the ratings, only ever won one Emmy … for Costume Design. The top-10-ranking Knots Landing and Falcon Crest scored one win each, for Music Composition.

To reiterate: Emmys don’t like soap operas.

What’s more interesting about this year’s crop is the Lead Actress nomination of Empire’s Taraji P. Henson. Not merely because she absolutely deserves it, and not because of the traditional dearth of African-American actresses in the category—which, this year, Henson shares with Viola Davis of How to Get Away with Murder.

It’s because with Cookie’s invention, Lyon, Henson, and Daniels have cleverly subverted a well-worn soap-opera trope: the bitch ex-wife who abandoned her husband and children, only to return with a vengeance and demand back not only her spot within the family, but also within the company they’ve built up in her absence.

For primetime soaps, the prototype is obviously Joan Collins’ Alexis Carrington, who strode into her ex’s murder trial and proceeded to raise Dynasty‘s ratings by making everyone’s lives deliciously miserable for the next eight seasons (plus a TV reunion movie).

But daytime soaps are no slouches in that department either.

On The Young and the Restless, there was Dina Abbott Mergeron, who first dumped husband John and kids Jack, Ashley, and Traci to run off to Europe. She then swept back in and attempted to take over the family company, Jabot. Dina also managed to have an affair with Ashley’s lover, Eric (as did Alexis with her daughter, Fallon’s, tennis-pro fling, Mark). Then she dropped the bombshell that John was not Ashley’s biological father before flitting off again.

Santa Barbara‘s C.C. Capwell, however, has Y&R‘s John beat. C.C. had not one but two wives, Pamela and Sophia, who left him and their children, then returned at inopportune moments to reclaim their legacies. C.C. once groused, “When they write my biography, it will be called: The Man Whose Wives Never Die.”

All My Children‘s Palmer would probably sympathize. He raised his daughter, Nina, to believe that her mother, Daisy, was dead. Except there she was eventually, calling herself Monique, befriending the lonely, fragile Nina and even urging her to stand up to Palmer when he objected to Nina’s relationship with Cliff.

Another World‘s Justine, likely suspecting that she wouldn’t be welcomed back with open arms after many decades away from sons and husband, went so far as to make herself the identical doppelgänger of her former lover’s current wife, and took her place (having the real woman kidnapped and stashed away).

Finally, General Hospital‘s Edward suffered the ultimate indignity in that not only wasn’t it his ex-wife, but it was his ex-mistress, Beatrice, who showed up out of the blue. There, Beatrice revealed that she’d been spending the checks Edward regularly sent her for the upkeep of their illegitimate son, Eric, not on the boy, but on herself. Beatrice had been living the high life while she dumped Eric on some yokel cousins, who changed his name to Jimmy Lee and turned him into a country bumpkin. Now that Jimmy Lee/Eric had established a relationship with his father’s family, Beatrice wanted even more of Edward’s money. Because … um … reasons?

Empire‘s Cookie Lyon would seem to be just the latest in a long line of soap women back for revenge. Except for one key difference.

All of the women above were wrong. While Cookie is absolutely right.

Cookie didn’t voluntarily abandon her family (or even take a payoff to leave, whether happily or reluctantly). Cookie went to jail to protect her husband, Lucious, and their sons. She wasn’t living it up on the Riviera. She was serving hard time.

As for the empire that Lucious built in her absence, it was funded with the drug money Cookie went to prison for, and it was successful thanks to Cookie’s ear for music and flair for promotion. Damn skippy she deserves a piece of the pie—a really big piece! Maybe, like, the whole thing. (For the record, I don’t think any of the three sons Lucious was vacillating between leaving the company for is worth even a third of their kickass mother.)

And that’s the most subversive thing about Cookie Lyon. She isn’t being unreasonable. She just wants what’s rightfully hers. Cookie is single-handedly rehabilitating soap-opera women everywhere.

Taraji P. Henson managed to make what, on paper, could have been just another loud, obnoxious, unpleasant cliché into a strong, sympathetic, loving, vulnerable, outrageous, one-of-a-kind, rootable woman. She deserves an Emmy for that feat alone. (Plus, as I remind my teenage son when he starts to mouth off, Cookie is real handy with a broom.)

TV Families | EW.com
Mark Harris
February 23, 1990 AT 05:00 AM EST

The Bradys are back, with a passel of 90’s hassles. Do they represent the typical American Family? Did they ever? Who does? Stare and compare!

Kind Of Family
TheBradyBunch 1969-74: Blended
The Bradys 1990-: Enormous
Married…With Children 1987-: Postnuclear
Thirtysomething 1987-: Extended
The Flintstones 1960-66: Modern Stone Age

Family Pet
The Brady Bunch: Tiger
The Bradys: Alice
Married…With Children: Buck
Thirtysomething: Grendel
The Flintstones: Dino

Typical Guest Star
The Brady Bunch: Davey Jones
The Bradys: There’s no room
Married…With Children: Sam Kinison
Thirtysomething: Carly Simon
The Flintstones: Ann Margrock

Expression Of Joy
The Brady Bunch: Groovy!
The Bradys: Ritual hugging
Married…With Children: ”Oh, great.”
Thirtysomething: ”Of course I’m happy for you. Really. But what about me? Why does it always have to be about you?
The Flintstones: ”Yabba-dabba doo

Expression Of Rage

The Brady Bunch: ”Hmmm…”
The Bradys: ”If you back away from something you really want, then you’re a quitter!” (the angriest any Brady has ever been)
Married…With Children: ”Aaagh, God, take me from this miserable life!”
Thirtysomething: ”I’m not angry, OK?”
The Flintstones: ”Willllmaaaa!”

Typical Problem
The Brady Bunch: Marcia and her rival both want to be the prom queen.
The Bradys: Bobby gets paralyzed.
Married…With Children: Al doesn’t buy his family Christmas presents.
Thirtysomething: Nancy gets cancer.
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney are staying out too late.

Typical Solution
The Brady Bunch: The prom committee decides to have two queens.
The Bradys: Bobby gets married.
Married…With Children: They hate him.
Thirtysomething: If only we knew…
The Flintstones: Wilma and Betty decide to follow them.

House Style
The Brady Bunch: Conservative but mod, circa ’69
The Bradys: Conservative but mod, circa ’90
Married…With Children: Roach motel
Thirtysomething: Enviable
The Flintstones: Suburban cave

Clothing Style
The Brady Bunch: Early Osmonds
The Bradys: Made in the USA
Married…With Children: Flammable fabrics
Thirtysomething: Eclectic earth tones; nice ties
The Flintstones: One-piece

Most Annoying Character
The Brady Bunch: Alice’s cousin Emma, the substitute housekeeper (too strict)
The Bradys: Marcia’s husband, Wally (chronically unemployable)
Married…With Children: Steve (supercilious)
Thirtysomething: Ellyn (goes through Hope’s drawers, babbles, changes hairstyle every other week, generally mistreats her friends)
The Flintstones: Mr. Slate (bossy)

Attitude Toward Sex
The Brady Bunch: Never heard of it
The Bradys: Omigod — even Cindy does it!
Married…With Children: Peg: Yes. Al: No.
Thirtysomething: They didn’t get all those kids by accident.
The Flintstones: Prehistoric

How Spouses Fight
The Brady Bunch: They don’t.
The Bradys: Infrequently, but it happens
Married…With Children: Tooth and nail
Thirtysomething: They stop talking
The Flintstones: Fred and Barney go bowling while Wilma and Betty max out their charge cards.

How Kids Get Into Trouble
The Brady Bunch: Greg takes a puff of a cigarette.
The Bradys: Carol’s grandson steals her business cards and sticks them in the spokes of Bobby’s wheelchair.
Married…With Children: By committing felonies
Thirtysomething: Ethan plays with a forbidden toy rocket.
The Flintstones: They don’t.

How They’re Punished

The Brady Bunch: ”It’s not what you did, honey — it’s that you couldn’t come to us.”
The Bradys ”Next time, ask.”
Married…With Children: By the authorities
Thirtysomething: It blows up in his face.
The Flintstones: They’re not.

What Family Does For Fun
The Brady Bunch: Takes special three-part vacations to Hawaii and the Grand Canyon
The Bradys: Has flashbacks
Married…With Children: Exchanges insults
Thirtysomething: Talks
The Flintstones: Attends showings of The Monster at the Bedrock Drive-In

Unsolved Mysteries
The Brady Bunch: How exactly did Carol’s first husband and Mike’s first wife die?
The Bradys: What’s with Marcia’s new face and Bobby’s blonde hair
Married…With Children: What kind of hair spray does Peg use?
Thirtysomething: Why did Nancy take Elliot back? What do Gary and Susanna see in each other?
The Flintstones: How does Barney’s shirt stay on if he has no shoulders? Where do Fred and Wilma plug in their TV?

Worst Behavior
The Brady Bunch: The Brady children once made Alice feel under-appreciated.

The Bradys: Marcia’s son Mickey watches Bobby’s car-crash tape for fun.
Married…With Children: The Bundy’s kill their neighbor’s dog.
Thirtysomething: Elliot has an affair and talks about it.
The Flintstones: Characters don’t wear under-clothes.

Best Reason To Watch
The Brady Bunch: This is what life should be.
The Bradys: They’re all grown-ups now!
Married…With Children: Terry Rakolta hates it.
Thirtysomething (Tie) This is your life. This isn’t your life.
The Flintstones: This is what life might have been.

Best Reason Not To Watch
The Brady Bunch: Blurred vision from rerun overdoses.
The Bradys: You’re all grown-ups now.
Married…With Children: She has a point.
Thirtysomething: After a while, you think it’s real.
The Flintstones: The Simpsons

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