Bipolar Disorder

Empire: A New Model for Bipolar Disorder on TV

Not the "crazy creative" but the corporate executive

Posted Feb 23, 2015

Empire, a new hit drama on Fox created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, shows the family drama behind a music-driven corporation that is sort of the music version of Dallas' oil story with tunes produced by Timbaland.

The family features a father, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who started a music empire with $400,000 earned through his ex-wife's drug dealing. Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), the ex-wife, is newly out of jail for drug-dealing and is hoping to reconnect with her children, and to get the financial rewards she earned through her management of Lucious and the establishment of the label with her illegally earned funds.

The story focuses on the efforts of Lucious, recently diagnosed with ALS, to find his successor from among his three sons. Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), the youngest, is a talented rap artist but is moving into adulthood with a problematic relationship with an older woman and a tendency to drink too much. Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the middle son, is a talented songwriter who Lucious thinks is not suitable to lead because he is gay. The eldest son, Andre (Trai Byers), manages the complex finances of the company. He is not musically gifted, but graduated from the elite Wharton School of Business and has a close relationship with his father. He also has bipolar disorder. But his mental illness has not been named as a reason for his dad not choosing him to be future leader of the company. Instead, it is Andre's lack of musical ability that has his dad overlooking his business acumen.

Unlike the usual portrayal of people with bipolar disorder as being unable to function, or as criminal offenders who do not take their medications, in Empire—at least for the first seven episodes—bipolar disorder is a back story.

Andre Lyon is a rare TV or movie character with a chronic mental illness who is shown managing his illness by taking his medication and managing his symptoms (with the support of his wife) while functioning at a very high level. His brain disorder has not yet had a negative impact on his performance at work. (I say "yet" because I am sure this storyline is yet to explode). Until then, television is showing that having a mental illness does not prevent someone from earning a degree from an academically demanding program or having a key leadership role—taking it to an IPO—in a large company.

With this character Empire has made its mark by challenging the standard plot treatment of people with brain disorders: talented people who cannot reach their potential because they have a brain disorder, which they refuse to treat because they are in denial. Or worse yet, they are on a criminal rampage because they refused to take their medications. (I love my cop shows, but the criminal with bipolar disorder is an overworked plotline as it is an overexposed theme in the news media). 

There are lots of reasons that Empire is great TV—good acting, great plot, interesting characters, surprising cliffhangers, and catchy music—and I am a big fan. But beyond the intriguing plot twists that keep me watching, for once I am not (yet) cringing when the character with bipolar disorder comes on screen. 

In showing a high achiever who is successful at managing bipolar disorder, the show takes some steps to de-stigmatizing bipolar disorder specifically, and brain disorders in general. In doing so, Empire may inspire people to seek treatment and pursue dreams they may have otherwise not thought possible.