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If ‘Empire’ Declines, What Happens to Its Emmy Chances?

If 'Empire' Declines, What Happens to Its Emmy Chances?

On the face of it, the soaring ballad of “Et Tu,
Brute” is what “Empire” does best: pure pop satisfaction with
lavish accompaniment and impeccable threads, sung by two soulful stars. But as
Jamal Lyon (the beguiling Jussie Smollett) and Skye Summers (Alicia Keys)
launched into their performance of “Powerful” in the hip-hop
melodrama’s fall finale, the lyrics signaled a softening of the series’
provocative point of view. The allusions to Black Lives Matter that graced the
season premiere’s #FreeLucious rally become a paean to post-racialism — “I
matter, you matter, we matter all” — the messy, lively symbolism of Cookie
Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) descending to the stage dressed as a caged gorilla
reduced to the clean lines of a careful duet. There’s nothing objectionable
about it, exactly, and that seems to be the problem. “Empire” once
thrived on the risky, even the outré, but of late it’s evolved into a soap that
plays it safe.

Safe, at least, in the context of a genre known for
producing narrative whiplash, full of shocking twists, evil twins,
and returns from the dead. “Empire” is, more than ever, focused on
the battle for control of the titular record label, exposing these machinations
as mere mile markers along the road to nowhere. In the course of last month’s
midseason premiere, the preening youngest son of the Lyon clan, Hakeem
(Bryshere Y. Gray) — having betrayed his father Lucious (Terrence Howard) in a
hostile takeover — rejects Cookie’s demand to renege on his vote, drunkenly
confesses his dissatisfaction with the outcome to Jamal, climbs atop a
boardroom table to claim his “birthright” as Empire’s CEO, and hires
Cookie as head of A&R (artists and repertoire) for the entire company,
swayed by the sudden desire to reunite his family. As one member of his love
interest’s girl group complains of their constant bickering, “I can’t take
this second-rate telenovela anymore.”

Absurdities of this sort are par for the course among
primetime soaps, and even in its heady early days “Empire” treaded
the line between over-the-top and overworked, but co-creators Lee Daniels and
Danny Strong cut through the narrative clutter with surprisingly rich family
dynamics and a devilish sense of humor — as recently as September, I called the
“a populist mic drop in an age of prestige.” That commitment
to bold, frank, sometimes unsettling choices (Cookie’s wildly inappropriate insults,
a Black Panther-themed musical number) is shakier now, whether as a result of
the expansion to 18 episodes, network notes, or a slightly delayed sophomore
slump. The sheer brute force of “Empire” thus diminished, the
weaknesses in its pacing are more pronounced, to the point that the recent
pileup of bodies appeared almost pro forma, at best an abrupt way of slimming
the series back down to fighting weight.

A year after its phenomenal freshman year ratings tear, “Empire” is still a hit—in its first two weeks back, it was the No. 1 show on TV. But “Empire’s” ratings have nonetheless taken a dip, and its Emmy
chances appear similarly limited, given that the TV Academy already declined to
nominate the series for Outstanding Drama once before. With time, though, even
long-running series are capable of reinventing themselves: “The Good
Wife” abandoned a dreadful fourth-season subplot involving Kalinda’s
abusive ex-husband, and followed up with a stellar fifth season featuring a few
of its finest episodes ever; “Homeland” scuttled the theatrics of
Carrie Mathison and Nicolas Brody’s strained love affair to become a terse,
thrilling portrait
of the War on Terror run amok.

Despite faltering, in fact, “Empire” retains the
raw materials that made the first season such a grand opera bouffe, namely charismatic,
Emmy-worthy performances from Henson and Smollett — together the fearless heart
of the series from the moment Cookie first traipsed into Jamal’s apartment, fresh from
prison, wrapped in a white fur coat. In tandem, their playful, affectionate
repartee, peppered with warm jibes and off-color comments, recaptures the real
allure of “Empire,” which is its willingness to court sentiment
rather than hold it at arm’s length.

“Pick a damn team!” Cookie drawls in an interlude
from the aforementioned midseason premiere, referring to Jamal’s brief
dalliance with Skye Summers. “You sound like y’all just wanna be freaky
deaky.” Watching Jamal launch into a little dance after explaining the
fluidity of sexuality — eliciting in turn a bright, sharp laugh and a loving
slap from his mother — Smollett and Henson’s finely tuned chemistry reminded me of the first
season’s ribald command of complicated relationships, its sense that honest
television is rarely the least objectionable. In that moment,
“Empire” rediscovered its verve by dispensing with its newfound need
to please everyone. It was, in short, as powerful as ever, simply by being itself.

“Empire” airs Wednesdays at 9pm on FOX.    

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