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Review: ‘Empire’ Sings Same Old Tune in Midseason Premiere

Empire” returns from its midseason hiatus with fresh episodes starting March 30, although given the plot twists, the first two hours sort of feel like a rerun. Perhaps inevitably, Fox’s breakthrough hit has begun repeating itself, playing out new angles on the central conflict – the battle for control of Empire Entertainment – that will seemingly allow every family member to claim stewardship of the company for at least a while. In the process, the series looks even more like the reboot of “Dallas” and “Dynasty” that it ostensibly is, while exposing differences between that era of TV consumption and this one.

Written and directed by Danny Strong, the first hour picks up where the break left off, with the pregnant Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) getting pushed down a flight of stairs. Alas, those expecting quick answers about the who or why of that obviously haven’t been paying attention to the way the series dishes out such material, which presents an even greater challenge, compared to season one, now that there are more episodes to fill.

The skirmish over the company, meanwhile – which saw patriarch Lucious (Terrence Howard) ousted, betrayed by his son Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) – continues with a rather pronounced role for Naomi Campbell as the femme fatale who helped push him out, which, strictly in acting terms, is not exactly the apex of guest stars to have passed through the series.

What remains, then, are those elements that helped make “Empire” a surprise hit, but which also are growing a bit predictable. That includes, of course, plenty of musical performances, with Hakeem and Jamal (Jussie Smollett) at one point actually serenading their brother Andre (Trai Byers) to help him through rough times. Watching them introduce the sequence, it’s hard not to think of Gene Kelly setting up mood music to woo Debbie Reynolds in “Singin’ in the Rain,” announcing that – because he’s such a ham – that’s the only way he knows how.

Foremost, “Empire’s” principal attraction remains Taraji P. Henson as the mercurial Cookie, who tends to get all the best lines. In the premiere, that includes referring to Campbell’s character as a “half-lesbian” and snapping at Jamal – who, despite being gay, had a liaison with a woman – to “Pick a damn team!”

To be frank, the explosive nature of “Empire’s” success has always been something of a mystery in this quadrant, other than that the timing was just right for it, representing a mix of elements that haven’t been assembled in a package quite this attractive in some time. Even so, there’s a sense that the storytelling has fallen into a bit of a rut as the writers tackle how to keep introducing new threats to alter the fundamental power dynamics, only to watch Lucious, Cookie and the kids seek to gain (or regain) the upper hand.

Fortunately for Fox, the series has burned so brightly – and been such a media sensation – that there’s a sizable cushion as it explores ways to maintain a sense of narrative urgency going forward. That said, such programs tend to exhaust their oxygen much faster these days, rendering producer Lee Daniels’ talk about a spinoff over the summer premature, since the focus at this point should be on steadying and preserving the longevity of the flagship franchise.

In musical terms, while the needle on “Empire” isn’t exactly stuck. It’s just that the playlist does seem to have become a bit narrow, already reprising its greatest hits. Or maybe, like a lot of artists after the buoyant rush of a breakout debut album, those responsible are understandably grappling with what they can possibly do for an encore.

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