‘Empire’ Aims to Educate, Not Shock, with an HIV-Positive Love Story

Posted October 31, 2018 10:25 p.m. EDT

In Season 2 of “Empire,” Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), the vindictive, ruthless music mogul, delivered a blistering statement to his gay son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett): “You ain’t nothing to me but a disappointment. And the day you die from AIDS, I’mma celebrate.”

It was maybe the worst thing a parent could say to a child, and another example of the rottenness of Lucious’ soul.

Three seasons later, “Empire” has invoked HIV/AIDS again, but this time, the subject has been finessed into the story, as a way to educate viewers, not to shock them. Episode 4 told, via flashbacks, the evolution of Jamal’s courtship with a journalist, Kai (Toby Onwumere), including Kai’s disclosure about having HIV. And on Wednesday’s episode, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) learns about Kai’s status when she visits him at the hospital, where he’s recuperating after having gone missing while reporting a story abroad. She is aghast: “You just going to let him get you sick?” she scolds Jamal, out of Kai’s earshot.

In a recent phone conversation, Smollett said “Empire” had planned to incorporate an HIV/AIDS story line since the beginning of the show. Over the years, plans would “come apart” and “fall away,” he explained, but now, “It was time.”

He is concerned about how HIV/AIDS has become a “side story” in conversations within Hollywood and the broader cultural landscape. “I’m still losing people to AIDS,” he said. Through Jamal’s relationship with Kai, the hope is to “normalize” the realities of living with the illness and to take away the stigma.

Outside perspectives were brought in, including from those who are HIV positive and Smollett’s mentor Phill Wilson, the founder of the Black AIDS Institute, an organization Smollett has worked with since he was a teenager. “The writers that we have, everything — our whole team, we can handle this,” he added.

In the 1980s and 1990s, HIV/AIDS was a popular topic for writers’ rooms, inspiring Very Special Episodes that often featured fleeting characters who existed solely to destigmatize the disease for everyone else onscreen. (See the “A Different World” episode with guest star Tisha Campbell as an HIV-positive Hillman College student, or Tony Goldwyn as a gay man dying of AIDS in an episode of “Designing Women.”) As the widespread panic around AIDS dissipated, so did depictions in scripted television, which became fewer and further between in the early 2000s, save for the occasional show like “Queer as Folk.”

With the introduction of Kai, “Empire” joins a handful of TV shows from the past few years that have featured characters who are HIV-positive, including the short-lived HBO series “Looking,” Amazon’s “Transparent,” ABC’s “How to Get Away With Murder” and FX’s “Pose.” With the exception of “Pose,” which chronicles the predominantly black and brown queer ballroom scene in New York City during the peak of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s, these programs are set in the present and try to address the realities of having HIV, or of being in a relationship with someone who does. (“I love what “Pose” did,” Smollett said, because “they’re right in the heart of the beginning, and we’re able to tell it in present day.”)

References to PrEP, the antiviral regimen that significantly lowers the chances of contracting HIV through sex, are peppered into scripts. On “Looking,” for instance, Dom (Murray Bartlett) patly tells Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), who is insecure about dating someone with HIV, “It’s not 1994 — just go on PrEP, get over it.” On “Empire,” a concerned Cookie asks Jamal if he’s “prepping to die”; Jamal explains that the medication is for people like him who are HIV-negative, “so that they don’t get infected.”

Smollett said he initially asked the writers to give Jamal the illness. “I was searching for, ‘What is the way that we can deal with it, that we can tell the story?’” he explained.

But according to Brett Mahoney, who took over as showrunner for Season 5, the audience’s alliance with Cookie (she’s a major social media draw on nights that the show airs) helped decide against that creative choice. Cookie would “never reject Jamal,” he said. “We wanted to tell a story where she was convinced by the facts of what the current issues are of HIV/AIDS” and “to accept and embrace Kai.”

Smollett is pleased that this is how it turned out. “I think it’s actually more important to see him not have it,” he said, and to instead “see how he deals with someone that he loves having it.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, the characters on shows like “Empire” and “Transparent” that are dealing with the status, either directly or by proxy, tend to come from LGBT communities. Mahoney said the team members felt that in having a black gay character like Jamal they had to discuss HIV in some way: “It’s going to be part of his world.”

Last season, Ellie Kirshenbaum, a programming executive at 20th Century Fox Television, which produces “Empire,” relayed a story about being in a Trader Joe’s the day after an episode in which Cookie had a heart attack, Mahoney said. A woman was telling the cashier that the episode had inspired her to buy healthier food. “The numbers of black and brown people, and particularly black and brown men, who are still contracting HIV” highlighted the show’s opportunity to make a difference, he said. But Smollett emphasized that he doesn’t want to make it seem like “this was just the next step of being gay.” He said that it was important to include Jamal’s line to Cookie about being on the PrEP regimen, “This isn’t anything new, Ma, and it’s not just for the gays.” (On the other end of the spectrum, “How to Get Away With Murder,” a show in which almost all of its main characters have robust sex lives, received some criticism during its first season for broaching the HIV topic through only its gay characters. Later episodes would convey more nuance.)

Unlike with Lucious’s horrific one-liner to Jamal in Season 2, which eventually was forgotten amid the show’s narrative whiplash, the writers plan to continue addressing HIV as Kai and Jamal’s relationship progresses. In the next episode, Mahoney said, Cookie will be seen educating herself on HIV and what it’s like to live with it today.

But above all, Smollett is happiest to have a story line “about two black men who are in love.” At the end of Wednesday’s episode, Jamal and Kai propose to one another — a rare, though not unprecedented, moment in scripted TV history. (Black male characters became engaged and eventually got married on the Logo series “Noah’s Arc,” which aired for two seasons in 2005 and 2006.)

“I haven’t been this excited about Jamal’s story line since Season 1,” Smollett said. “For so long I’ve been saying: ‘Can’t Jamal just have a normal, healthy relationship? Can’t he find that one?’ ”

“Cookie and Lucious are pretty healthy, but they’ve still got their issues. I mean, he still let her rot in jail for 17 years and divorced her and then married Boo Boo Kitty, who had a baby by his son,” he added. “So Kai and Jamal are, by all means, the healthiest relationship on the show.”