Warning: This post contains multiple spoilers from Season 2 of “Empire,” leading up to Wednesday’s midseason finale.
Is “Empire” going off the rails?
The Fox show, about the embattled Lyon family and their growing music conglomerate, has been known for outrageous plotlines and characters since it debuted to unprecedented ratings earlier this year.
Now that the show is in its second season, the storylines have gotten even more insane, ranging from underdeveloped to completely nonsensical. Major plot points from Season 1 appear to have been abandoned completely. And fans have noticed.
This isn’t really about ratings.”Empire” is still a win for Fox and number one in its time slot, though the show’s numbers aren’t as impressive as they were last season, which grew week-to-week until hitting an all-time high of 16.7 million for its season finale. And the ratings have declined since the Season 2 premiere, which played to 16.2 million viewers. (That number grew to 22.5, once Nielsen accounted for viewers that watched or streamed the episode in the three days following the premiere, which is the new standard that Fox will be using to track viewership.)
Brad Adgate, senior vice president of research at Horizon Media, noted that the ratings for “Empire’s” second season have declined since its strong season premiere, standing in contrast with those in its first season.
“The good news is it’s still a really strong show,” Adgate said. “It brings in a really desirable audience.”
Adgate echoes many viewers when he offers that weaker storylines could be another explanation for the ratings stagnation, noting that fans abandoned another Fox show — the musical dramedy “Glee” — after the narrative took a nosedive.
“I think a lot of people blamed the storyline for its demise,” Adgate said.
One of “Empire’s” storylines this season — the kidnapping of the youngest Lyon son, Hakeem — was particularly troublesome for viewers. It happened completely out of the blue (at the end of Episode 5) and was clumsily resolved in the first half hour of Episode 6 — more quickly than a message arc in an old-school sitcom.
The motives of the kidnapping were never fully explained, at least not in a way that made sense. Hakeem recovered from implied PTSD in the span of a few commercial breaks, after Laura, the lead singer of his girl group, sang to him. Also not explained: Why Hakeem, after being released by his captors, ran straight to Anika, his father’s ex-fiancee, with whom he had a brief (vengeance-motivated) fling.
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.
Three episodes later, what have we learned? The twist we already knew was coming — that Cookie’s latest love interest, Laz, was involved in the kidnapping — was revealed to Cookie (by Lucious) in last week’s episode. Laz’s assertion that he really does care about the Lyon matriarch has yet to be validated.
Anika’s endgame is even murkier. She was completely absent from Episode 7, but the following episode saw her storyline morph quickly into one of obsession. It’s strongly implied that she’s pregnant, presumably the result of Hakeem’s mysterious visit.
After Hakeem made it clear that he was not interested in pursuing a relationship with her, Anika appeared to kidnap Laura, the woman with whom Hakeem is interested in pursuing a relationship. Just kidding! Anika was only posing as a limo driver to give her a ride home, albeit a creepy, veiled attempt at learning everything about her.
In that same time-span, we’ve done our best to follow along with what may be the season’s steadiest storyline — the Lyon family’s dueling record labels — and we’ve been introduced to new characters — Cookie’s sister Candace (Vivica A. Fox, who is already rumored to be involved with an “Empire” spin-off), and pop star Skye Summers (Alicia Keys), whose mutual attraction to Jamal is something, well, unexpected.
Here’s hoping the Skye-Jamal storyline is more fully (and thoughtfully) developed than that of Jameson, the consultant Jamal hired (also in Episode 6), to help him branch out from “Empire’s” narrow-minded marketing strategy. Where art thou, Jameson?
Wednesday’s fall finale promises to tie up some loose ends. Guest star Marisa Tomei, who appeared in the season premiere as a potential investor, has apparently been scheming to take control of Empire from Lucious.
The episode also marks the return of Naomi Campbell, as Hakeem’s ex-girlfriend, Camilla. At long last, a connection to Season 1. Even Cookie is feeling nostalgic — she is slated to give a free concert at her old prison.
“Empire” fans know that to appreciate the show is not to take it too seriously. In this way, it operates much like Shonda Rhimes’s “Scandal,” which for all of its merits — Kerry Washington’s unflappable Olivia Pope among them — too often resorts to storytelling that feels like there’s a hat in the writing room with a bunch of different, implausible scenarios scribbled on them. Just grab one and run with it.
Even as that type of storytelling has alienated some “Scandal” fans, it’s proved successful, in part, because the show knows exactly what it’s trying to be. The same could be said about “Empire,” which delights in introducing random guest stars (including co-creator Lee Daniels) and giving Cookie deliciously ridiculous lines. And there’s no denying that “Empire” is still an enormously popular show — inspiring everything from baby names to fashion lines.
After Wednesday’s episode, “Empire” will be on hiatus until March. How it proceeds after that break could make all the difference.