Remember the good old days when Fox's Empire was must-see TV? Well, you should, considering that it was only a few short months ago. It seems the show's production team didn’t receive the same memo we did that Empire was a highly anticipated, critical and commercial hit with an instantly green-lit 2nd season. Memos sometimes get lost in the mail, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for now. It's getting harder to ignore, however, that the series has been struggling to find its groove since its return in September. Not since Desperate Housewives—a former ABC comedy-drama with a landmark 1st season—do I recall such a drastic sophomore slump. Don’t get me wrong; Housewives had flashes of brilliance throughout its 8-year run, but it never quite regained its footing after its game changer of a debut. The final 7 years were spent limping towards the finish line, and by the time the celebratory tape was crossed, no one really cared. So, in regards to Empire, who's experiencing a similar second-season jinx, let’s invoke the spirit of TLC’s Left Eye for this all-important question: How can a show achieve such massive success out of the gate and then fall off so quickly? Well, I’ve got 3 compelling answers, so get ready to do your math.
Misuse of Talent
Somewhere along the way, the show developed a frustrating penchant for underutilizing its core talent, often to prop up guest stars in meaningless, if not boring, roles. Yes, we all know that Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Howard, and their respective characters are exceptional, but there are gifted cast-members who aren't being properly used. Trai Byers’ turn as Andre Lyon can be powerful, layered and riveting, as long as the writers remember to give him something — anything — to do, besides be a pawn in Lucious’ game. Grace Gealey’s Anika, season 1’s standout supporting antagonist, has been reduced to a not-so-glorified extra, strapped to a whipping post as the writers invent shameful new ways to humiliate her. When she’s not twerking for deals, this supposedly savvy businesswoman is playing eager side piece to a 20-year-old rapper. I’ve lost count of how many literal and figurative doors “Boo Boo Kitty” has had slammed in her face this season, and she hasn’t even been on much. While I understand that villains are sometimes softened to be more endearing over the course of a show’s run, Anika seems to have undergone a full-on lobotomy. She’s hardly recognizable and the fire that made her so compelling as the girl we all loved to hate has been extinguished. Gealey has ability far beyond the material she’s received as of late, and it’s a shame that it's being wasted.
Payoffs That Fall Flat
Intriguing developments are resolved too quickly on this show, and their impact is forgotten within a few episodes. For example, the season 1 finale highlighted the murder of Vernon Turner and the arrest of Lucious Lyon. For any other series, that would've set up several compelling story arcs for the next season. Oh, but not Empire. Just a few episodes into season 2, Lucious uses extortion to secure his release, and Vernon’s corpse is used for shock value and slapstick humor, as its placed in a district attorney's car to scare the heebie-jeebies out of her. Empire is often referred to as a soap opera, but one of its fundamental problems is the absence of continuity and fluidity between episodes. The show could benefit greatly from employing the best tactics from every soap playbook: make the story build, make the people wait, and make the payoff worth it.
Empire has also been victim to what has brought many a show to its knees: ignoring character history solely to advance the plot. The show’s been so guilty of it this season that it almost plays like repertory theater, with characters swapping personalities at a rate that most people change underwear. The idea that headstrong, tough-as-nails Cookie would be so quickly trusting of a new beau (i.e. event promoter/secret gang member Laz Delgado, portrayed by Adam Rodriguez) is unrealistic, along with receiving cautionary advice from her youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). Yes, the impulsive, reactionary and self-serving Hakeem is the voice of reason here. Poor Jamal (Jussie Smollett) hasn’t fared any better either. In the span of 4 or 5 episodes, he raced through an arc that would take most TV characters years: from sensible and kind, to dark and calculating (as much as Jamal can be), to sensible and kind again. Who knows? Maybe we’re in store for a big Fight Club-like reveal for the season finale: we’ll find out Jamal is the one who’s really bipolar and Andre isn’t real, existing only as part of Jamal’s split personality. No? Well, sorry for getting your hopes up. You have to admit that would have been an epic spoiler alert, though.
All of this brings us to an even bigger question: Has the Empire fallen for good? No, not by a long-shot. Despite obvious flaws, the series has all the ingredients to be appointment viewing again, so it would be a bit premature and just plain foolish to draw up its epitaph now. Empire is very young and still one of the highest-rated programs on TV, which means there’s plenty of time to reverse course and right the ship. Let’s just hope it happens while we’re still onboard.
In my opinion, Empire's biggest (but surmountable) obstacle is pacing. To co-sign Jamaal's (the writer of this article, not Jamal Lyon, haha) remarks, they're burning through storylines like talentless pop-tarts do singles. The hostile takeover, Frank Gathers (Chris Rock's ominous character), Vernon's death and Hakeem's kidnapping (just to name a few) all could've stretched over 2 seasons and maybe they wouldn't be in a position to have a dangerously gaping hiatus (after the 12/2 airing, they won't come back until 3/30/16). The rapid-speed opened the door to "where the hell did that come from?!" moments, dragging episodes and missed opportunities for character enrichment (like Jamal's descent into callousness) and award-reels. How did Jamal get Michael back, again? What was the who-what-when-where-how of Michael cheating? Do you really expect me to believe that keen Cookie, who hadn't been sexual with anyone besides Lucious and trusts no-one, would fall in head-over-heels, "You don't know him" love twice, back-to-back? How does Boo Boo Kitty have nothing post-Lucious when she comes from a wealthy family and has an Ivy League education? Speaking of Lucious, that guy is way too invincible...like, unicorn invincible. It's nearly comedic. I need to see some struggle for believability purposes. I also need to see a more accurate depiction of mental illness (Hakeem's so-called PTSD was a hot mess) and a less stereotypical portrayal of lesbians. I also agree with Jamaal that Andre should have been front-burner: murder, religion, bipolar disorder and an alleged pregnancy; lots to do there. All this aimlessness in season 2 doesn't make sense when you have that much to play with. I think the writers should take notes from ABC's How to Get Away with Murder--they made 1 murder work for the whole season.