Empire is a huge show. Season 1’s success caught everybody by surprise, including the people who created the show, and you cannot convince me otherwise. I even claimed, hyperbolically, that Empire was the best show on television for a number of paradoxical reasons. Each week, last season, the viewership grew, and for good reason.
With Empire, you really never knew what was going to happen next. The entire premise of the show made little sense, but me and you (your mama and your cousin, too) were drawn to the Lyon family, especially Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, the recently-released-from-a-17-year-bid felon, returning to take back her family. It was like The Cosby Show (too soon?), only if Cliff and Clair sold weight instead of going to college.
This unpredictability was part of the Empire charm. It turned into one of those shows for which celebrities wanted a cameo. I mean, hell, who wouldn’t want to be a guest star on the biggest show to hit television and black America in years? The characters were likable enough and believable enough—in a “Is this what life is like at Puff’s house every day?” kind of way—that we reluctantly forgave some of the utterly nonsensical scenes toward the end of season 1. Like the scene where Lucious is lying in bed being visited by Casper, who, if memory serves, was himself. Like I said, some things we just forgave.
To be real, the only true way to enjoy Empire is to take it at face value and not delve in too deeply. It’s like Young Thug songs or sausage. Like that last sentence—it makes sense, but only if you don’t try to analyze it too deeply. You just have to watch and enjoy, then go watch something else without trying to make the show mean more than it does.
But that’s the problem—it’s getting harder and harder to watch and ignore the nonsense.
Empire is a show full of non sequiturs and incomplete, then completely forgotten storylines that everybody seems to get over almost instantly. For instance, on episode 5 of this season, Hakeem gets kidnapped. On episode 6 the kidnappers, who are not the best kidnappers ever, lose Hakeem, who asks a guy who was driving a van he was in to let him out, only for Hakeem to run up on Boo Boo Kitty for some aggression sex. Or something. I said, “Hunh??” at my television so loudly I almost activated a Master P station on Pandora—I’ve got a Smart TV.
From there, you can’t really tell if Hakeem is dealing with PTSD or if his captors put an LSD patch under one of his tattoos. But the point is: kidnapping, then quick rescue. Back-to-back pretty cleanly, and let’s move on with only scant references from others about what happened (well, aside from Lucious making it seem like Hakeem bitched out). That’s the Empire way. There are no elephants in the room. They killed the elephants and sent them to oblivion, only to be heard from again when somebody in the writers room says, “Hey, you remember that time we did X 10 episodes ago but never actually mentioned again? Let’s bring that back!”
Let’s not even talk about Jamal’s daughter, who showed up in season 1 and everybody was like, “Cool.” Then it turned out that Lucious was the father and everybody was like, “Cool.” Then she was gone at some point and everybody was like, “Cool.”
I was also irritated by Lucious’ attempt to explain to Cookie what happens during a kidnapping—a woman who, if memory serves, was as heavy into the game as Lucious was, enough to get nearly two dimes of time. Now all of a sudden she has no recollection of street life? Her street acumen was her biggest draw, which is also a problem with this season.
Let me get this right: Cookie starts a record label called Lyon Dynasty, which is headquartered in the hood somewhere (in Brooklyn?), but she doesn’t have the wherewithal to hire security? At all? Come on. This is a woman who sleeps with a gun and knows how to use it. But security isn’t a concern of hers? Not even a smidge? Not until one of her artists gets robbed in the building and her son gets kidnapped? They’re using this security storyline as an arc for the season as the introduction for the dude she fell in love with in that Tyler Perry movie they were in together, where he was a bearded saint of sorts. But the very premise makes so little sense that it’s a turnoff.
The charm of last season’s “I didn’t expect that at all!” has morphed into “What the f—k did my television just show me, because that’s the stupidest s—t I’ve ever seen in my life? Empire, you’re failing.” It’s a subtle difference, but they’re treading into Tyler Perry “Just make it work; maybe nobody will notice” territory. Last season Empire had the element of surprise working in its favor. Because we had no real comparison, we were all in for the ride together.
This season, however, as folks waited for the premiere and have watched the first six episodes, viewership has dipped (though still remaining very high), and I think it’s because the formula they had for season 1, they’ve kicked into hyperdrive for season 2. Personalities already exaggerated have gotten more ridiculous. Andre has started to become somebody you hide from on Saturday mornings when you hear a knock at your door. Jamal’s singing has begun to grate, and he’s not good at business. Only Hakeem is as insufferable as he was in season 1, which was really insufferable.
Once you add in nonsensical plot points like studio sessions in prison (though this is the same prison for which an inmate managed to cut off the head of another inmate and have it sent to Cookie, so I guess anything is possible there), record labels in the hood with no security and Andre going full zealot, it starts to become a bit too much.
The fun is gone. Now it’s forced ridiculous. A rapper puts a Bible verse into his song while performing, and Lucious loses his s—t like he’s about to cost him money. Except DMX was one of the biggest rappers ever and would probably be a preacher if this rap thing didn’t work out (it kind of didn’t after a certain point). Same with Tupac. Or any number of rappers. But it’s a problem because it agitates Lucious and his conflict with Andre.
Or there’s Freda Gatz being annoyed by some random dude who is able to bother her during her show and security never intervenes. The more you watch, the more it’s like, were the writers even there for this scene or did they just hand over some blank pages and say, “Club scene: Y’all figure out the details.”
I remember many years ago when Girlfriends hit season 3 and took a turn for the worse. Back then I posited that many of our shows seemed primed to get, maybe, two seasons tops, so the writers all prepared for that and gave it their all. So when they were given a third, they were caught with their pants down and kind of threw things together but never matched the past glory.
Empire seems kind of like that. Of course it got a second season, but maybe the writers weren’t prepared for that. Hell, they weren’t prepared for Empire to blow up the way it did, so when they hit the drawing board, with the added pressure to be as good as season 1, they turned up all the elements from the first season that “worked.” And here we are with people not nearly as enthusiastic about the show as they used to be.
There’s a thin line between love and hate. There’s also a thin line between “I didn’t expect that! Awesome!” and “WTF did I just see? That’s ridiculous. What’s on BET right now?”
I keep trying to watch on autopilot, but sometimes you need to look where you’re going. And I’m not sure if Empire is going my way anymore.
Panama Jackson is the co-founder and senior editor of VerySmartBrothas.com. He lives in Washington, D.C., and believes the children are our future.