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It’s difficult to imagine that Empire could go bigger than it already has. Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s Fox drama exploded this past winter as “black Dynasty,” picking up more and more viewers each week, and breaking the current broadcast ratings ceiling. It woke viewers up with its “leave no plot behind” energy, music producer Timbaland’s kinetic soundtrack, and its immediate engagement as a series. It was the soapiest soap that could be, and yet, its entertainment value (and mere 12 episodes) made it appointment television.
Season 2 brings that same energy and more, as it no longer needs to take time to establish its main characters (though was there a better establishing shot than of Cookie — played by the incendiary Taraji P. Henson — in her long white fur coat leaving prison?) Empire doesn’t really take time to establish much, freewheeling as it does through its first three episodes and burning through plots without a care. Some care should be taken though, because Empire limits itself in those moments, choosing to careen into chaos rather than build up actual drama.
But this is a show that kicks off with a #FreeLucious concert that features Cookie emerging from a gorilla costume in a cage and makes it work. (Season 1 wrapped with the family’s patriarch, played by Terrence Howard, plotting his revenge on Cookie from jail in a reversal of their Pilot fortunes). Further, it actually makes a complex commentary about race and activism, as the family knows Lucious is guilty, but galvanizes the crowd about the evils of a prison system that incarcerates black men more than any other race by declaring his innocence.
Empire is all about spectacle, though, both within the show’s world and regarding the series as a whole. The Lyons are always dressed to the nines, with brand names and labels being dropped constantly. Celebrity appearances are peppered throughout the first episodes of the new season too, with cameos by Al Sharpton, Marisa Tomei, Kelly Rowland, Chris Rock, Ludacris and others, often in roles that seem integral to the plot, but are forgotten by an episode’s end. Such is the pace of Empire.
The main thrust of Season 2, though, revolves around family in-fighting and shifting alliances, which is truly what the show does best. Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is learning that running a company is a distraction from his music, while Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) has teamed up with Cookie to create their own label. Andre (Trai Byers) is largely left out of any moves of consequence, as the family’s lone non-musical member, but there’s still plenty of scheming for him and his wife Rhonda (Kaitlyn Doubleday) to get involved with. Then of course there’s Anika (Grace Gealey), somewhat sidelined in the shadow of Cookie this season, but provoking some of the show’s best lines out of her rival, and also playing a key part in the family’s machinations.
The key to keeping Empire from spinning off its axis into disaster, though, are its musical numbers, which ground the series and give it its unique flavor. There are plenty of dramas about families, and plenty of outrageous shows, but none connect that to music in a way that, occasionally, feels very real (Nashville has often been over-the-top, but never to Empire levels — for better or worse). It’s what connects its characters, too, as the label defines their lives, and their music (or their ear for it) is always paramount.
Empire is extreme, it’s often silly, and it’s occasionally hilarious. But it is, above all, entertaining. Part of its success initially may have been because of its restrained episode count (12), but Season 2 plays with fire by expanding it to 18. Still, the show is a throwback to TV that was also a firebrand, uniting viewers and starting conversations, even if those conversations are just about Porsha’s (Ta’Rhonda Jones) best lines, or Andre Royo’s scene-stealing purple-suited lawyer. Empire’s frenzied identity may eventually burn itself out, but what a journey it will have been.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good
Empire Season 2 returns to Fox Wednesday, September 23rd at 9 p.m. Also, check back on Collider for our new video recaps of each episode.