Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
“Welcome back to the Lyons den,” boasts the gleefully flamboyant artwork for the sophomore season of Fox’s mega-hit Empire. A cute pun, undoubtedly, but also a bit of a front. Like the show itself, the ads for season two put on a soapy pretense full of pristine costumes and over-the-top characters, but the great thing about Empire as it steamrolls into its second year is that it keeps its dialogue sharp, its twists cutting, and its characters just the right bit of cruel to make for a soap that does what so many hour-long dramas fail to: feel genuinely dangerous.
As the Shakespearean shenanigans continue this year, we’re thrust into the action three months after the events of last year’s big finale. Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) is in prison for the murder of Bunkie, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) is attempting to pull Empire Entertainment (or how everyone succinctly, and reverentially puts it, ‘The Empire’) out from under her former beau while he rots in a cell, and the rest of the clan begin to divide up and take sides in the Lucious vs. Cookie dysfunction. There’s a comical amount of guest stars in the first three hours alone – from Marisa Tomei to André Leon Talley – but even the smallest blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spots feel successfully fulfilled and executed.
The main thrust of the first episodes of the season concern Cookie’s attempts at wrangling billionaire Mimi Whiteman (Tomei, acclimating into the broad cast with ease) into purchasing a controlling share of Empire so that the hostile takeover scheme from last season can finally go into effect. In prison, Lucious finds himself face-to-face with the dreaded Frank Gathers (Chris Rock) and not only does their drama ensure the behind bars sections of the show feel as electric as anything in the halls of Empire, but a subsequent plot about Gathers’ daughter and her rise to fame also kicks off one of the new season’s most promising arcs.
Still dealing with running the Empire on his own, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) also gets some nice forefront action in the opening episodes that ultimately lead to a line-drawn-in-the-sand moment for which Empire is so readily known. He was great last season and even better now, thanks mostly to the fact that he doesn’t have to fumble through some of season one’s more awkward hidden sexuality subplots (did no one see that equality tattoo on his forearm at all before he came out?) and can take charge as the sitting head of the company and all the drama that comes with it. The show’s side cast still rocks too, with cartoonish Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) getting a bit more grounded due to impending motherhood, and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and Andre (Trai Byers) dealing with some turbulent jealousy thanks to Jamal’s rise to power.
There’s a lot packed into these opening hours of the season, as you can see, with plots from last year tying up and the groundwork for the season ahead being laid, and ultimately it succeeds at doing both (especially the mayhem Frank Gathers brings back into the Lyons’ lives), but it does leave little time for the show’s much-anticipated new music. Lucious gets to bang out a new track in prison (why not?), and it’s as endearingly straight-forward as last year’s “Drip Drop” with a hook that goes something like “You ain’t nothing but a snitch, bitch/Snitching ass bitch.”
Tiana (Serayah McNeill) still gets the show’s fizziest headbangers, and should make anyone who ever had “Keep it Movin'” and “Conquerer” on repeat pretty happy once the new songs are released. But, other than those two (which I can’t even name, or hum if asked) there’s not as much time for musical interludes this time around. Only slightly disappointing for fans eager to digest the new songs, there’s still no doubt that more musical numbers will come to fill these gaps as we move forward into the 18-episode season.