Empire: The road to season 3 is paved with questions

Stellar cast, solid writing and great music has managed to save Empire from the obvious pitfalls of a late-night soap opera. But for how long?

Written by Ram Sarangan | New Delhi | Updated: October 8, 2016 7:06 pm
empire, empire television show, tv show empire, empire tv show, empire review, empire television show review, empire latest news, empire latest updates, entertainment news, indian express, indian express news Empire boasts a solid writing team that draws deep from the black American community, its culture and the hardships musicians face that find their way into their music.

How does a show manage to exceed hype that reached fever pitch before it even premiered? In the case of Empire, it’s by maintaining an almost manic narrative speed as we follow the Lyons – a music moghul family in America’s colourful hip-hop industry.

The musical drama series, which initially caused waves as the brainchild of Lee Daniels and Danny Strong, quickly skyrocketed for its ability to get details right about the hip-hop and R&B industry while balancing an array of over-the-top characters. With season 3 off to a strong start, the show continues to make its mark by elevating the soap opera format with top-notch production and character development.Empire boasts a solid writing team that draws deep from the black American community, its culture and the hardships musicians face that find their way into their music. The season 2 premiere starts by addressing Ferguson, while a season 3 episode pulls no punches in portraying the brutal assaults black people can face at the hands of the police.

Empire boasts a solid writing team that draws deep from the black American community, its culture and the hardships musicians face that find their way into their music. The season 2 premiere starts by addressing Ferguson, while a season 3 episode pulls no punches in portraying the brutal assaults black people can face at the hands of the police. However, the show’s determination to throw at least five or six curveballs in every episode makes it difficult to keep the pathos of the show from sliding into parody at times. At such times, it’s up to the stellar cast – especially Terrence Howard (Lucious Lyon), Taraji P Henson (Cookie Lyon) and Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon) – to restore the balance and act as the backbone of the show.

However, the show’s determination to throw at least five or six curveballs in every episode makes it difficult to keep the pathos of the show from sliding into parody at times. At such times, it’s up to the stellar cast – especially Terrence Howard (Lucious Lyon), Taraji P Henson (Cookie Lyon) and Jussie Smollett (Jamal Lyon) – to restore the balance and act as the backbone of the show. The dynamics between the Lyon family makes King Lear pale in comparison. Howard excels as Lucious, the man who can ruthlessly bring down his own sons or ex-wife in order to reign supreme, and on many occasions manipulates them without remorse. Henson grabbed eyeballs immediately for her inimitable portrayal of Cookie Lyon, veering between an intense desire to hold her family together and taking what’s “rightfully hers”. Trai Byers’s Andre Lyon, while initially a stoic and rather plain character, goes on to grab attention – especially in season 2 and 3 – as he struggles to balance ambition, his bipolar disorder and his status as the only person in the family without musical talent.

The dynamics between the Lyon family makes King Lear pale in comparison. Howard excels as Lucious, the man who can ruthlessly bring down his own sons or ex-wife in order to reign supreme, and on many occasions manipulates them without remorse. Henson grabbed eyeballs immediately for her inimitable portrayal of Cookie Lyon, veering between an intense desire to hold her family together and taking what’s “rightfully hers”. Trai Byers’s Andre Lyon, while initially a stoic and rather plain character, goes on to grab attention – especially in season 2 and 3 – as he struggles to balance ambition, his bipolar disorder and his status as the only person in the family without musical talent. In a curious dichotomy, this dysfunctional family can fight tooth-and-nail, backstab each other and otherwise clash professionally, while being able to put that aside and rally together when one of them is faced with a personal problem. This is all the more bizarre because with the Lyon artists at least, their music is inseparably linked to their lives – be it a scarred childhood from dealing with a homophobic father or a husband’s love for his wife.

In a curious dichotomy, this dysfunctional family can fight tooth-and-nail, backstab each other and otherwise clash professionally, while being able to put that aside and rally together when one of them is faced with a personal problem. This is all the more bizarre because with the Lyon artists at least, their music is inseparably linked to their lives – be it a scarred childhood from dealing with a homophobic father or a husband’s love for his wife.
Music is the highlight of the show – well, after drama and back-stabbing and the general nastiness that tends to accompany late night soap operas. The songs themselves can be hit-or-miss, but the process of creating music is almost always riveting. The scene where Jamal and Lucious collaborate to create a song is especially captivating. Add to this a wide array of guests ranging from Alicia Keys, Pitbull, Rita Ora, Snoop Dogg and Patti Labelle, among others, and it becomes clear that music isn’t just a second-rate prop in this show.The breakneck speed of the plot means that we’ve already seen the CEO of Empire Entertainment change multiple times. The very fact that the cast is so strong is also the show’s biggest weakness because it sets a limit. Third-party characters can never command as much attention as the family, and are inevitably written out in short order. The only true challenge for the family is each other. How many more novel backstabbing storylines can Empire write before the show starts to feel claustrophobic and worn, despite the acting talent?

The breakneck speed of the plot means that we’ve already seen the CEO of Empire Entertainment change multiple times. The very fact that the cast is so strong is also the show’s biggest weakness because it sets a limit. Third-party characters can never command as much attention as the family, and are inevitably written out in short order. The only true challenge for the family is each other. How many more novel backstabbing storylines can Empire write before the show starts to feel claustrophobic and worn, despite the acting talent? This will be the show’s biggest challenge walking into season 3. Easing up on the pace can’t be an option for a show that aims to be as hectic and flamboyant as the lives of hip-hop superstars themselves tend to be. The question now is whether they can keep the story as engaging as the first two seasons, or if season 3 will be the time to bid farewell to the Lyon family as we know them.

This will be the show’s biggest challenge walking into season 3. Easing up on the pace can’t be an option for a show that aims to be as hectic and flamboyant as the lives of hip-hop superstars themselves tend to be. The question now is whether they can keep the story as engaging as the first two seasons, or if season 3 will be the time to bid farewell to the Lyon family as we know them.

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