What is going on with Empire this season? Last year’s glorious guilty pleasure left things on a high note but came back flat. It shouldn’t have. Not when the finale set the stage for the next chapter: After a season-long competition to determine which of Cookie and Lucious’ sons would be heir apparent to the Empire label, Lucious picked Jamal. Cookie and the passed-over sons, Andre and Hakeem, plotted a hostile takeover, and Lucious got arrested for murder. In the final scene, Lucious promised us, “Game on, bitches.” Too bad the writers are off their game. There has been a ratings slip, which isn’t much of a cause for alarm, since the show’s ratings are still strong, but it has lost some of its must-watch appeal. Here are some thoughts about how to pull the show out of its sophomore slump:
Stabilize the mood whiplash. Lucious can’t make up his mind about anything. He’s out for Cookie’s blood—except when he’s not. He hasn’t forgiven her for nearly suffocating him with a pillow—but the Lyons can be one big, happy family if Cookie drops her new label, Lyon Dynasty. Seeing as how Empire is, well, an empire, why should he be concerned with a little startup? Eldest son Andre wants to return to the fold, so Lucious will take him back, right? Nope. He singled out Andre for lack of loyalty and was unaccepting of Andre’s mood disorder. Of course, now that Lucious knows that Andre covered up Vernon’s murder and buried the body in the woods, Andre’s back in favor. You know what they say: The family that slays together stays together.
Surprise us. Vernon’s murder would have made a juicy whodunit. Vernon (Malik Yoba) was crucial to the federal case against Lucious and at odds with Andre. Empire is obsessed with flashbacks—we certainly saw enough scenes of Jamal in the garbage can; Malik Yoba could have stuck around for a few as we tried to guess the culprit. It would have been a great reveal to find out that pregnant Rhonda, of all people, was the killer.
Slow down the plot. How did sweet and sensitive Jamal turn into a jerk in three months? He kicked Cookie and his brothers out of the mansion and slammed the door in his mother’s face; now he’s just wandering around scenes not doing much of anything. Lucious’ incarceration wasn’t that dramatic or gritty. Are there huge, expensive, flat-screen TVs on murderers row? And Cookie’s power grab for Empire was over in an episode.
Don’t turn Empire into The Love Boat. The episodes have been rife with meaningless cameos and guest spots. No offense to Marisa Tomei, but Mimi Whiteman isn’t bringing anything to the table except a reason to make a “white man” joke. When Frank Gathers, the ruthless overlord we heard of throughout the first season, showed up, he was played with unintentional hilarity by Chris Rock. Frank was also a halfhearted cannibal for … reasons. We have all wanted to tell Don Lemon to have a seat at some point, and in the season premiere, he showed up for 10 seconds so that Cookie could dismiss him. The most amusing part of that scene was wondering if Lemon understood that he was the butt of a joke. He probably didn’t. The most upsetting cameo was a shot of naked Lucious last week. What did we do to deserve that?
Don’t monkey around with social issues. Last week Jamal and Hakeem welcomed us to the thunder dome with a ham-fisted video about police brutality. Cookie mocked it, calling it “real subtle.” Then Cookie got shoved into a police cruiser so she could make a Sandra Bland reference, shouting that if she died in custody, she did not commit suicide. There wasn’t even an extra around to hear it, so whatever. Scandal did a much better job when it focused on racist, dog-whistle politics last week. Let someone else take care of serious matters, and for the love of all that is holy, please do not address Black Lives Matter while wearing a gorilla outfit. We want to laugh for the right reasons.
Elaine G. Flores is a New York writer, editor and bon vivant. She’s a hard-core shipper and excommunicated soap opera reviewer. Her fictional dinner-party guests include Omar Little, Buffy Summers, Abigail Mills and Ichabod Crane. You can visit her site, TV Recappers Delight.