What season two of Empire still does best, however, is its incisively cutting dialogue, especially between arch-nemeses Cookie and Anika (Grace Gealey). The things that are said – and sometimes thrown – are some of the most delightfully vicious conversations on the small screen, and performed in such an expertly dynamic manner by the show’s ringer of a cast (Henson, it can never be overstated, is a revelation) that even delivered in low-key terms you still visibly flinch from the blows. The writers also walk a very tight rope in presenting complex characters that can be loving in one moment and utterly ruthless in the next (Jamal telling his confused assistant to, “Figure it out little boy”) with nary a step into obnoxiousness.
Unfortunately, season two also brings over baggage from the first season that can occasionally cause some moments of emotional whiplash for viewers. Mainly in the relationship between Cookie and Lucious, which last season ping-ponged from cutesy former flames to near-asphyxiation-via-pillow so often it risked straining your neck. It’s gotten better in the new season, but it’s still readily present. There’s just almost no concrete ground for viewers to stand on in knowing how the two feel about each other in any given moment, with scenes where they’re hunky-dory coming seemingly out of nowhere and causing a quick feeling of wait, did I miss something, for them to only go back to plotting one another’s demise in the next episode.
These moments feel too much like the writers playing god than playing to the truth of the characters, inserting fights and friendship where they feel some spot in the script is lagging, and it ultimately results in a relationship that’s undeniably tempestuous and subsequently entertaining, but also far too nebulous to truly invest in. Thankfully, the end of episode two gives a bit more of a defined border to the two’s on-again-off-again relationship and episode three is overall the most successful in this department, so there’s hope that the rest of the season could continue to build on these hints of early-hour improvement.
If you noticed, I haven’t mentioned much about the actual plot of Empire‘s second season, and that’s for good reason: there’s so much ground covered and story blindsides here that even the first three hours feel like their own satisfying mini-story in some senses. If you were a fan of the show’s premiere season earlier this year (and its blockbuster ratings suggest you were, the network so proud of itself it’s thrown in a little “Fox Presents” moniker on the title card), there’s absolutely nothing about season two that will turn you off.
I’m hard-pressed to actually quantify Empire as “good television,” however. The show won’t go down in history books as high-art or anything approaching those standards, but it’s doing something that may be just as laudatory: it’s creating appointment television. In 2015, where such screw-the-DVR notions are reserved for monoliths like Game of Thrones, that’s not only huge, it’s unprecedented. It’s carving itself out a piece of the television landscape that reminds me most of something like Desperate Housewives or, like the show tips its own hat to in the new season, Dynasty. Sure, you won’t be challenged in your viewership, but you may end up organizing your life around its timeslot on Wednesdays this fall. Nowadays, that may be the biggest victory of all.
Simultaneously refined and deliciously pulpy, Fox's mega-hit Empire roars back to life in its second year, with all the brand-specific viciousness and gasp-earning twists fans have come to expect from the Lyons.