After last year’s historic run, Empire has finally returned. With a larger episode order, more guest stars promised, and critics and casual viewers alike on board, Empire has lofty expectations to live up to in its follow-up season.
In the music world, the sophomore slump is a well-established jinx. Everyone has an entire lifetime to come up with that first record, but when you’re under pressure and time constraints to deliver more material, it’s tough to live up to your own standards. Empire could burn out in spectacular fashion in season two, but based on tonight’s premiere, the series has a few hits still up its sleeve.
Basically, the mantra of this first episode seems to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Everything fans loved about season one is present in this first episode. Jussie Smollett can still sing his ass off; the musical numbers would fall flat if it weren’t for his talent and energy. Taraji P. Henson is still a hurricane in a fur coat; Cookie’s campy, catty one-liners would sound hammy from a lesser actress. The drama is still fast, loose, and deliciously outrageous in a way that other shows could never pull off and wouldn’t dare ever try. Cookie Lyons enters a “Free Lucious” rally wearing a monkey suit while being lowered to the stage in a cage. EMPIRE IS BACK, BABY!
Empire’s greatest strength, and also something that worries me about the show, is the way that the writers just tear through story. The fallout from Cookie’s murder of Teddy McNally, Frank Gaddis enacting his revenge, Cookie’s luring of Mimi Whiteman (a near unrecognizable Marisa Tomei), Whiteman’s double-cross, Lucious tangling with Gaddis in prison, all of this would be a season’s worth of plot to another show. Here? It’s just the prologue.
In particular, I’m sad to see Gaddis go so soon. Though watching Terrance Howard deploy that icy-cool toughness that he brings to Lucious so well was a treat, Gaddis could have been an excellent Big Bad and really made Lucious’ prison time interesting. Chris Rock was interesting casting for the part. At first, I found the notion of Rock being intimidating silly, but by episode’s end, I was starting to buy in to his gangster routine. It’s a shame we won’t get to see him flesh out the character further, but I’m sure the void his absence leaves will be quickly filled, removed, and filled again.
The real focus of the season seems to be the family at war, with Cookie, Hakeem, and Andre on one side, and Lucious and Jamal on the other. That being said, last year’s premiere seemed to promise an epic battle between brothers that never quite materialized. Sure, there were squabbles and tense moments, but there was none of the life and death conflict between the siblings as was promised.
For a show that seems to go big on everything else – star power, shock for shock’s sake (Gaddis’ cannibalism was toned down at the request of Fox), production values – Empire goes shallow on characters and their interactions with each other. Barring Lucious and Cookie, who actually convey complicated feelings and history, the characters lash out and team up with each other at the drop of a hat with little rhyme or reason. Everyone feels a little more lived-in in this premiere, but I hope things progress further.
Even with its flaws, there’s still not a more entertaining hour of television on network TV, and even if it makes me shake my head, I’m excited to see what insane thing the show attempts next. Welcome back, Empire. I missed you.
The Best of the Rest
- It’s amazing how easily I jumped back into this show as if no time had passed. Has it really been a whole summer?
- The boardroom takeover, with Mimi delivering a spinning chair surprise double cross, is the soapy goodness that only this show can deliver.
- Turning the Free Lucious rally into a commentary about the incarceration of African Americans felt a little tone deaf to me, especially because Lucious is guilty; then again, this show has a history botching social issue-based episodes.
- “Your father is a tampon.” How did this woman not win an Emmy?
- Cameos like Al Sharpton and Don Lemon are good for a chuckle, but are ultimately distracting. I’m more interested in living in Empire’s world than being brought back into my own.
- Does Swiss Beatz have to ad-lib vomit on fictional songs too?
- The aggressive lesbian angle came across as cliché on a show that also has the most complex gay character on TV. Strange.
- Vernon’s murder still hangs in the air for Andre, the Terrible.
- Anika was a weak spot last season, so the writer’s wised up this year and literally used her only as eye candy. Smart. Did you see her twerk? Be still, my heart.
- “I’m gonna sign your baby girl, then give her my bone.” Damn, Lucious, that’s cold.
- I can’t wait to watch Jamal dive further into this Michael Corleone descent into darkness.
- Prosecutor Roxanne Ford, and her cleavage, look to be another big player this season.