“Empire” is back. After a long hiatus, television’s breakout hit returns with Season 2 on Sept. 23, and showrunner Ilene Chaiken promises more music, more relationships, more A-list guest stars and much more Cookie (Taraji P. Henson).
“If Season 1 was who would inherit the throne, Season 2 is warring kingdoms,” Chaiken teases of the new theme of the new episodes, suggesting big drama between Lucious and Cookie’s sons (Smollett, Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers).
Below, Chaiken tells Variety what to expect in Season 2 of “Empire.”
Is there more pressure going into Season 2, now that you’re the biggest new show on network TV?
No. There’s no less pressure. I’m not saying there’s not a ton of pressure, but we’re all doing the same thing. There was a ton of pressure last year, and there’s a ton of pressure this year. We’re all working together in the same way. We’re just all being rigorous with ourselves. The studio and the network are still rigorous with us. We hold our feet to the fire, and try to make really good, wildly entertaining, consummate television.
Any big differences in tone in Season 2 or does it pick up and carry on the same way?
It picks up. It doesn’t pick up seamlessly. We jump ahead in time a little bit. The tone is not going to change – “Empire” is “Empire.” Hopefully, there will still be lots of moments every episode that make the audience gasp and scream, a lot of moments that hopefully go deep and that are really about character and are revealing, and we’ll continue to talk about culture and society and to portray characters that haven’t been portrayed on television that felt important and gratifying.
Co-creator Lee Daniels spoke about the family dynamic becoming grittier. What did he mean by that?
He talked about wanting to deal more with poverty, as he calls it. The show is still the show. The show is still about the Lyon family. They’re very rich people and they’re surrounded by fabulousness, but as would be true with the Lyon family, they come from poverty and their family is in their lives, and they’re going to tell the story about what happens when somebody rises up from poverty, but still has relatives in that world that they left behind. So in that sense, the family dynamics become more intertwined. And we’re also doing another flashback story that goes into the past and the places where Lucious came from.
Can you expand on that flashback scene?
I’m not going to talk about it in great deal because it’s a core story for us, but the flashback story, particularly for Lucious, is very much a story that we tell in the past, but it dovetails in the present and it has ramifications in the present. The story that we see about young Lucious Lyon is going to be reflected in his music and in his life, and some of those characters are still around, and there will be a payoff to that story in the present-day world.
With Jamal in charge of Empire Entertainment now, how does that shake up the dynamic between the brothers?
A lot. Jamal is dealing with the be-careful-what-you-wish-for syndrome. The brothers are dealing with having lost, and how they’re going to come back from it, what they’re going to do now. Of course, there are some moves during the season. We’ll see some shifts in the hierarchy.
So he may or may not stay in that top spot?
It’s never a secure perch.
Does that further the competitive nature between the three brothers?
I think it does. But each of the brothers has their own goal and drive and they approach their ambition from the point of view of what each of them cherishes.
We left off with Lucious in jail. How long can we expect him to stay there?
Well, he’s still in prison. Not surprisingly, he’s not going to stay in jail forever. The story of how he gets out of jail and what happens when he gets out of jail are really important, and Lucious Lyon in prison is really prison because going to prison – which is something that Lucious never wanted to happen and didn’t think would happen because Lucious thinks he’s above the law – puts him back in touch with his past, with his roots, in a way that winds up having a lot of payoff.
Does Cookie have anything to do with him getting out?
He has to do with him getting out – in some ways.
Adam Rodriguez from “Magic Mike XXL” is joining the cast, and his character is described as taking in interest in Cookie. Is he her new love interest?
That’s a good rumor. [Laughs.] I’ll neither confirm or deny more than the extent that his story is a Cookie story.
Are celebrities now just knocking on your door to guest star?
Yes. [Laughs.] It’s really great that so many amazing people are interested in being on the show. Lee Daniels knows more people that anybody on the face on the Earth so it happens constantly in his world and in conversation, and I’m also sure there are people reaching out to the studio and the network.
Can you tease anything about Mariah Carey’s guest role?
Just that it’s a really exciting proposition.
Is she playing herself?
It’s not determined yet. There’s a chance Mariah will play herself.
How do you maintain the balance of not making the celebrity guest stars too much of a stunt?
We do have some fabulous people coming on the show, and it’s not what the show is about. When those people come on the show, the best part about it is the guest stars are as talented as the cast, and everything that we do, we try to do with maximum impact, but they fit seamlessly into our show. They don’t hijack it, they don’t derail our stories, they’re there to be part of “Empire.”
How do you maintain the balance between storytelling and music, without one overpowering the other?
It’s exactly like the guest stars – the story always drives it, and that’s always our driving principle. It’s always about the music coming out of the story that we’re telling, and because we’re telling stories about musicians, there’s tons of music. There’s tons of music in the show – maybe even more than last season – but it’s still entirely organic to the story.
Now that the show is such a proven success and it’s likely that you’ll be given more and more seasons, have any original storylines changed in the writers’ room from the beginning?
No. They really haven’t. We don’t assume that were ever going to have success, but you have to behave as if you are, and so we broke the story that we wanted to last year and we told the story that we did. And fortunately, we’re getting to continue telling that story.
Now that “Empire” is a mega-success, how long would you like the show to go on for?
I don’t know. I’d like the show to go on for as long as it possibly can and until it’s done. I wouldn’t say five and out or six and out – I just want to go away if there’s nothing more to say, but as long as there’s more to say and more good story to tell, then “Empire” should be a part of American television.