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How ‘Empire’ Beat the Sophomore Slump

How 'Empire' Beat the Sophomore Slump

“Dynasty, that’s a dope name,” ex-felon and foul-mouthed matriarch Cookie Lyon (the incomparable Taraji P. Henson) coos in the second season of “Empire” (FOX), examining office space for a new venture. It is, as the staff at Vulture once recognized, also an apt point of comparison for Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s irrepressible hip-hop melodrama, which basks in the excess of white parties, benefit concerts, and talent signings as surely as “Dynasty” did oil money and Moldavian massacres. Indeed, if the unprecedented ratings success of “Empire” elicited fears of a sophomore slump, the creators’ decision to double down on the series’ operatic tendencies will lay any such doubts to rest. “Empire” returns to the airwaves Wednesday night bigger, brasher, and better than ever, a populist mic drop in an age of prestige.

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In particular, the season premiere, directed by Daniels with knowing wit, is a fearlessly constructed confection, acknowledging the series’ over-the-top reputation and then running with it anyway. “Fox Presents ‘EMPIRE'” now appears on the title card, and cameos by Al Sharpton, Andre Leon Talley, and Don Lemon—not to mention guest spots by Chris Rock and Marisa Tomei—confirm what TV Twitter has known since the series’ debut: “Empire” is event television.

As the new season opens, three months after legendary hip-hop artist and Empire Records co-founder Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) was arrested for the murder of Cookie’s cousin, Bunkie (Antoine McKay), his ex-wife’s conniving is once again in full swing—this time, she flirts with Tomei’s angel investor, Mimi Whiteman, to secure the funding for a hostile takeover of the label, and almost simultaneously arrives on stage at a #FreeLucious event by being lowered in a cage while wearing a gorilla suit. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The Lyons’ internecine alliances have reversed, with the soulful Jamal (Jussie Smollett) leading Empire Records and embracing his father Lucious, the harder-edged Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) is now loyal to Cookie, and Andre (Trai Byers) and his wife, Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday), have calculatedly switching allegiances.

It’s unclear how long “Empire” can sustain this narrative high-wire act, and even in the three new episodes provided to critics there are stretches of needless storytelling chaos. In the meantime, however, the series blazes through any quibbles by taking unabashed pleasure in its own insanity, especially when Henson’s on screen. More than perhaps any other drama on television, “Empire” uses humor to disarm the audience, and her Cookie is one of the year’s finest comic inventions: hearing her friend, Carol (Tasha Smith), sobbing in the background after a severed head is delivered to the Lyon manse, Cookie lances the boil with a cruelly funny question, “Why are you over there crying like Tammy Faye Baker?” I nearly died.

If any one character can be said to represent the series’ ever more forceful sense of spectacle, however, it’s Smollett’s Jamal. Now quite literally a muscular figure, the soft-spoken, versatile R&B artist whose coming out lent the first season its structural backbone is a highly charged presence—the faintest hint of his father’s menace begins to shadow Jamal’s control of the empire, and the series quickly establishes this transformation as one of the new season’s dramatic motors. In one scene Jamal grabs his boyfriend (Rafael de la Fuente) by the hair and brings him into a tremendously sexy kiss. Aggressive and increasingly confident, eyeing what he wants and taking it without apology, he’s the new “Empire,” personified.     

This is the central appeal of the series, which seems to be written with a scalpel and filmed through rose-tinted glasses—”Empire” somehow manages to present a cynical portrait of the music industry without losing its apparently genuine optimism that the music itself still matters. In the season’s second episode, director Dee Rees (“Pariah,” “Bessie”) captures Lucious’ jailhouse track, “Snitch Bitch,” by holding tight to Howard’s snarling expression in a prison storage room, his head cocked to the side as he sings of one guard’s unnecessarily brutal tactics. The sequence is as visually and verbally arresting as Cookie’s provocations or innumerable changes of costume, further evidence that the series’ success has not yet created an excuse to coast.

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In fact, though “Empire” seems to relish its status as an heir to the original primetime soap, its commitment to a veritable dynasty of musicians, actors, writers, and directors marks it as a serious-minded attempt to amplify voices often excluded from the networks’ calculus. The series has become a cottage industry for filmmakers of color: in addition to Daniels and Rees, previous episodes have been helmed by Sanaa Hamri, John Singleton, Mario van Peebles, and Debbie Allen, among others.

Cultivating, employing, and trusting in its talent, “Empire” ultimately sustains the particular magic of its debut—and then some—by pursuing the Lyon family saga with the same restless desire to speak out of turn that’s been the series’ trademark from the start. “I’m the lion / You the cub / Ain’t no stoppin’ me,” Hakeem sings at one point, eyes locked on his father, and it’s advice “Empire” has taken to heart. The key to avoiding the sophomore slump, as it happens, is never to rest on your laurels.

The season premiere of “Empire” airs Wednesday, Sept. 23 at 9pm on FOX.

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