Look back at “Empire’s” early reviews, and one sees plenty of mixed or middling appraisals. Then the show exploded commercially, enhancing the incentive to find much to analyze and appreciate, if only for the obvious traffic benefits. Why the Fox series took off – after so many similarly themed efforts didn’t – is one of those great TV mysteries, a mix of timing, casting, music and culture, as well as a buzz-worthy, Emmy-nominated performance in Taraji P. Henson’s ruthless matriarch Cookie. As for the producers and Fox, no fools they, the mantra for Season 2 is clearly why mess with success?
The first season’s climax left Cookie’s ex, music kingpin Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), rotting in a prison cell for a murder he actually did commit, having been betrayed and put away by members of his family. Still, reports that Howard’s role might be diminished were clearly off base if the first three episodes are any guide, as Lucious manages to fight for what’s his – amid a flurry of crosses and double-crosses – even in an unflattering orange jumpsuit.
Among the danger signs for “Empire,” even before season one concluded, was whether the media feeding frenzy would become its own kind of trap, leading to stunt casting and musical cameos (who wouldn’t want to cash in on the platform?) that risk distracting from the central characters.
There is surely some of that in the previewed hours, which include Chris Rock as an old associate of Lucious’ who he encounters in prison (in what can at best be called counter-intuitive casting); Ludacris; and appearances by Al Sharpton and CNN’s Don Lemon at a “Free Lucious” rally that opens the premiere. Marisa Tomei also turns up as a sexually predatory big-money investor, as if (for the purposes of this genre, anyway) there’s any other kind.
Written by Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken and directed by Lee Daniels, the first hour features a small time lapse as it sets in motion another free-for-all for control of the company, as Lucious’ designated heir, Jamal (Jussie Smollett), wrestles with the mantle of power. Meanwhile, little brother Hakeem (Bryshere “Yazz” Gray) pursues his own musical career, and the business-minded Andre (Trai Byers) has second thoughts about turning against dear old dad.
Admittedly, it does make for a fairly enjoyable if rather nutty stew, albeit one that requires ignoring things like, say, the plunging neckline of the ambitious prosecutor seeking to advance her career by using Lucious as her political springboard. Eventually, Cookie must visit Lucious in prison, and that exchange doesn’t disappoint. “It’s crazy how I can love your a– and hate you at the same moment,” he tells her.
“Empire” has been compared to ‘80s soaps like “Dynasty,” among others – old wine, basically, in a sleek new bottle – and the producers clearly embrace that label in a sly wrinkle that’s incorporated into these early episodes. That said, the chatter about spinoffs and other efforts to expand the franchise seem premature when the focus should be on keeping the project on the rails, creatively speaking – an escalating challenge for modern serialized dramas that chew through story at such a rapid pace.
Based on where last season ended, “Empire” looks secure commercially, at least in the near term. In addition, the writers made a shrewd move by essentially flipping the original scenario on its head – only now with Lucious serving as the outsider – allowing them to hit many of the same notes, just from different angles.
For all that, it’s still possible to admire the program as a commercial enterprise without fully buying into it as a top-tier drama creatively. And while it’s far too harsh to say the emperor has no clothes, in terms of the amount of media attention a program receives relative to its merit, it’s certainly good to be king.