Season 1 did things to ratings and audiences that network shows aren’t supposed to be able to do anymore. Now Season 2 seems poised to do it all again.
Empire, the most important show on television, returns for its second season Wednesday night, a world champ about to make another run at the title, surrounded by all the attendant excitement and expectation. Since debuting last January, Fox’s prime-time soap about a hip-hop dynasty swiftly became a phenomenon, a ratings smash in an age of vanishing ratings, a buzzsaw in an era when network shows struggle to hum, a largely black production in a still largely vanilla TV environment, a careening, plot-devouring, catfight-boasting melodrama grounded in something real, and the creator of the most indelible TV diva in decades: Taraji P. Henson’s indomitable Cookie, who wears her tacky animal prints like they are a superhero costume. Empire did things to ratings and audiences that network shows aren’t supposed to be able to do anymore. And now it has to do it all again.
Empire bursts back onto TV seeming more than up to the challenge, immediately settling into its groove as both an operatic piece of entertainment and, also, a form of politics. The new season begins three months after the events of the finale, in which Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) was arrested for murder, at a huge “#FreeLucious” concert and rally in Central Park. At its climax, a person in an ape costume appears onstage in a cage, banging its chest. The mask comes off: It’s Cookie. “How much longer are they going to treat us like animals?” she yells to the crowd. “The American correctional system is built on the backs of our brothers, our fathers, our sons. It is a system that must be dismantled piece by piece … Justice for all, not justice for some.” Then she leads the crowd in the chant: “How much longer?”
This moment, obviously, unfolds expressly within the context of Ferguson, Eric Garner, police brutality, a racist penitentiary system, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and it works on two levels. Empire is a chronicle of the Lyons clan, a black family in America who, necessarily, is engaged with these subjects. But Empire is also a cultural object, one whose enormous success pierced television’s largely white status quo. (By the end of last season, Empire was better-rated than the Super Bowl among black households: Networks will ignore this audience at risk to their own bottom lines.) By opening with a scene of protest, Empire is both reflecting the culture and declaring its place in it.
But if Empire is a do-gooder—and it is changing the world for the better—it’s a do-gooder that loves a party, preferably a superswank one, with Dom flowing. Empiredoes not pat itself on the back for being a show about black people so much as roll its eyes, say “bitch, please, of course,” and get down to the business of being deliriously outré, of putting Cookie in a monkey suit. The charisma of Henson’s performance, which is not scenery-chewing so much as world-conquering, and co-creator Lee Daniels’ devotion to the honest detail, however nasty, profane, or politically incorrect, are what make Empire feel so fun and so authentic, the latter a quality rare on television and even rarer in a decadent soap opera—a genre not exactly known for its verisimilitude.
In the new season, the characters’ personal politics continue to be satisfyingly complex. For Cookie, Lucious, and their sons Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), and Andre (Trai Byers), the Black Lives Matter movement is, among other things, highly convenient. Lucious is guilty of murder, which his family is all too aware of. They are happy to tie his plight to current events. While Lucious languishes in jail, held without bail thanks to a black, conservative prosecutor keen to make her name on Lucious, Cookie takes to the stage. But she’s out there calling for justice because she is masterminding a takeover attempt of Lucious’ record label, Empire Entertainment, and wants to impress—check out this name—Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei), a gay corporate raider whose cash Cookie needs. After her performance, Cookie chats up Al Sharpton, André Leon Talley, and Don Lemon, just the first of the season’s many boldfaced names (one of which is Oprah), evidence in itself of Empire’s real-world power.
The concert is the first of many, many schemes. At the end of last season, Lucious installed Jamal as the head of Empire, completely reshuffling the alliances of the first season: Cookie, Hakeem, and Andre are now aligned, all on the outs with Luscious, while Jamal faithfully visits his father in jail, trying to prove he’s tough enough to run Empire. Lucious, ever a merciless manipulator, becomes even more imperious with his sons, withholding and wielding his love like a weapon, in contrast to Cookie’s mother-love, which gets more gentle. (Through the first three episodes, I got the feeling Empire was being strategic with its Cookie deployment, saving more for later.) Jamal finds his hauteur, Hakeem locates his focus, and Andre forsakes his pride, begging for his father’s approval in a sad display of self-abasement that is as plausible as it is pathetic.
Through the first three episodes, all that was made available to critics, the plot starts whirring wildly and doesn’t stop, but it’s the details that convinced me Empire can make it through the rigors of a 22-episode season intact. (Last season was just 13.) I’m thinking of the way Smollett tears into Jamal’s new bad attitude, making a line like “You see that evil little ass that just walked up out of here?” vibrate with stank; of the way that Jamal has internalized some of Lucious’ homophobia and is unable to stomach all the “flamboyant dudes” from GLAAD; of how Hakeem absolutely would burden a girl group he’s trying to start with the awful, adolescent name “Ménage à Trois”; of Lucious remaining more than a little vile, recording a track in prison called “Snitch Bitch” and menacingly suggesting the adversarial prosecutor just wants to have sex with him; of how creepy and politically incorrect it is that the prosecutor probably does just want to have sex with him; of Cookie coming home to find her nieces playing with her wigs; of Cookie starting a record label called “Dynasty,” an obvious shoutout to Dynasty, but inspired on the show by an Orthodox Jewish food company, Vizhnitz Dynasty.
Above all, it’s that Lucious, Cookie, Jamal, Hakeem, and Andre keep orbiting around one another mostly to fight and feud. In the first episode, Cookie goes to visit Lucious in jail, even though the two are at odds. (She tried to kill him.) She desperately needs a favor and thinks she can count on him. She’s right. He looks at her and laughs. “I love your ass, and hate you at the same moment,” he says, beaming. No one is allowed to bring down Cookie but Lucious. That the Lyons would continue mixing it up, causing each other so much pain and aggravation, is the least rational but most realistic beat of all: They’re family.