This Wednesday, Fox’s smash musical-drama “Empire” returns for its second season. Though a number of critics were skeptical of the drama’s premise, a sort-of-retelling of “King Lear” set within a hip-hop/R&B record company, the first season quickly became one of the most watched and discussed shows on the air, and rightly so. Created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, “Empire” is like little else on television right now. In the so-called “Golden Age of Television,” where shows bend over backwards to portray themselves as handsome and literary, “Empire” has embraced the soapiness at its core, while still making room for some breathtaking performances and smart, measured writing. Refreshingly, “Empire” runs like it has nothing to prove to anyone, instead simply letting its hair down and inviting audiences to come take part in whatever gleeful insanity it’s cooking up.
Terrence Howard plays Lucious Lyons, a former drug dealer and the current CEO of Empire Entertainment, which is smack-dab in the middle of its IPO when the show begins. Unfortunately, Lucious suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and his doctor has given him approximately three years to live. Spurred on by the need to secure his legacy and the success of his brand, Lucious turns to his three sons, Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett), and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Grey), announcing that one of them will be selected and groomed to replace him as the CEO of Empire. All of Lucious’ sons are saddled with something that potentially calls their leadership ability into question. Andre, the oldest and most business oriented, suffers from bipolar disorder, frequently avoids his doctor’s appointments, and lacks the visibility and celebrity that his father deems essential in leading Empire forward. Jamal, though an immensely talented singer-songwriter, is gay, a fact which his father either cannot or will not accept. Hakeem, while Lucious’ favorite, and at the beginning of what could be a very successful career, is young and reckless, rarely able to keep his own life under control without the assistance of his father or one of his brothers. Complicating matters, the boys’ mother and Lucious’ ex-wife, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), has just been released from prison for good behavior. As one of the co-founders and the primary financier of Lucious’ empire, she returns to New York expecting what’s rightfully hers.
From the get-go, “Empire” gives itself a lot to juggle: family drama, rivalries amongst industry competitors, the various scandals that befall celebrity musicians, and potential unrest within Empire as a whole. Furthermore, it seems like Strong, Daniels, and their writers’ room are determined to cram as a much of this into each episode as possible. As is to be expected, the balancing act does not always work, but when it does, it is spectacular.
Notably, even when “Empire” does flub the landing, it still manages to shine. There’s a gleeful chaos to everything on the show, a narrative, performative, and sensual decadence. At the center of all of this is Henson, whose performance as Cookie manages to somehow be the highlight of every episode and scene. Whenever Henson enters a room or reads a line, the whole program seems to spark. She gives energy and weight to pieces of dialogue that have no right sounding as good as they do coming out of a human mouth, and she commits to every eccentricity and quirk that the script hands her character. In the hands of a lesser actress, the role of Cookie could devolve into a two-dimensional stereotype, composed of flash and noise with no discernible center. Henson, however, is a well of strength and insight, with little patience for the ways in which things have changed in her absence. Faced with a world that ignored her for 17 years and threatens to continue to do so even when she reappears, Cookie is faced with the choice to either make a splash or be swallowed up and digested by the tandem machinery of Empire and her ex-husband’s ego.
It takes quite a bit for those on the show to hold their own against Henson, but Howard does an often fantastic job. As Lucious, he is cold, calculating, insecure, afraid, tender, optimistic, and manipulative. Like the anti-heroes in whose footsteps he follows (particularly Don Draper), Lucious is a mess of inconsistencies given the ability to exercise their contradicting wills on the surrounding world. In his dealings with his children there is a stubbornness and even a cruelty, but also a confused bumbling sort of love. Importantly, like “Mad Men,” “Empire” makes no effort to justify or soften the mistakes of its central figure. Instead, it draws considered lines of motivation and lets the audience make their own judgments. Howard, too, never begs the camera or the script for sympathy, turning in a consistently measured performance that allows for small moments of emotion and electric hammy blowups in turn. Lucious is the prestige anti-hero as filtered through the lens of reality television and the soap opera, two forms that “Empire” fantastically repurposes.
In fact, “Empire” is a combination of a lot of things, none of which Daniels and Strong have the time to dole out in moderation. In textures as in narrative, “Empire” is bursting at the seams, with many episodes threatening to collapse under the sheer weight of what the show wants to convey within the hour. Even when developments feel campy or absurd, the show somehow manages to slot them into the tonal maelstrom of the episode as one more heightened beat to guide the audience through. In one episode, Hakeem and his friends visit a posh bar, where they tease the upper crust white-bread patrons who have done little to hide their racial contempt for Lucious’ son. Caught on cellphone, Hakeem mocks the diners for voting for Barack Obama as though it makes them less racist, capping off his diatribe with the assertion that Obama is a sellout anyway. Cut to Lucious on his personal phone with the President of the United States, explaining that his son is just a punk and really does love the Leader of the Free World, before getting hung up on by a presumably not-buying-it Commander-in-Chief. There is absolutely nothing about a scene like this that should work. It’s over-the-top. It’s implausible. It’s an absurdly quick fix for a situation that seemed like it was going to be milked for at least a bit longer. But, it’s also the perfect wrap-up for the plotline. It unexpectedly diffuses the side-story, while providing a bit of superb comedy and a touch of campy world-building. It provides the audience with a disbelieving laugh, while moving the episode forward, and like the rest of “Empire,” it doesn’t, for one second, flinch.
In its second season, “Empire” does, in fact, have some growing to do. Even with the hyper-kinetic thrills of the first season, the show often felt overstuffed in a way that slowed it down rather than allowing for the more limber and creative dramatic problem-solving that defined those wonderfully crazy moments. As a young show, “Empire” is still very much in the process of figuring out how to deploy narrative, how to structure itself, how to guide the audience through plot-heavy episodes without losing a sense of stakes or character. Still, it is rare that a show that tackles so much so brazenly succeeds in the way that “Empire” did in those first twelve episodes. Somehow making even its stumbles must-see television, “Empire” has crafted a labyrinthine world that feels consistently exciting and willing to experiment. By ignoring the expectations of so-called prestige television, “Empire” has created something distinctive and engaging, a far cry from the paint-by-numbers dourness of “True Detective” or “The Affair.” It’s messy, improvisational, contradictory and insane. All hail.