“Empire” wasn’t built in a day — it was built one jaw-dropping, Twitter-ready moment at a time. Fox’s blockbuster drama about the Shakespearean dynamics between a family of performers, producers and businesspeople at the pinnacle of a hip-hop record label is, or was, simply very good at being a ritzy prime-time soap opera. It moved its many story lines along at breakneck speed, careening through multiple shocks and twists each episode with little of the plot-prolonging wheel-spinning endemic to the genre. For an instructive comparison, viewers should watch not just any entertaining daytime soap, but even a relatively sharp and setting-specific nighttime serial like “Gossip Girl”; the ruthless efficiency of “Empire” is unparalleled. And from corpses in cars to main characters behind bars, it always knew how to end an hour, a stretch of episodes or an entire season on a strong note.
Then suddenly, last season, things went sour. The decision to stretch the smash hit’s second outing to a relatively lengthy 18 episodes from 12 necessitated a midseason break, after which the show returned feeling, for the first time, out of step with the musical and political moment. While the series had tackled issues as pressing and powerful as the Black Lives Matter movement with both genuine passion and thoughtful humility about entertainment’s role in it all, the presidential primaries and the rise of Donald J. Trump had passed it by. Meanwhile, the soundtrack’s trademark use of confessional lyrics to reflect the characters’ “real” desires and dilemmas were eclipsed in the real world by Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” a visual album that blended diaristic candidness with barely veiled political fury more deftly than Hakeem and Jamal could ever do.
But those events were, of course, beyond the show’s ability to control. Its decision to bog itself down in the hoariest soap clichés — pregnant women getting pushed down staircases, long-lost family members materializing out of the ether — was a self-inflicted wound.
Ditto the second season finale’s sudden shutdown of long-running plotlines and potential stunners: Annika gets grabbed by the feds but tells Lucious immediately rather than serving as a secret snitch for any length of time; Jamal gets shot by his friend Freda Gatz when she tries to assassinate his father, but heals offscreen; Lucious’s mentally ill mother resurfaces in front of the paparazzi but is pulled away before she can damage his reputation, also offscreen. The ostensibly climactic wedding between Hakeem and his girlfriend and collaborator was disrupted by a character we’d never even heard of until that episode (Xzibit’s vengeful Lucious associate Shyne, who returns this season). By the time Rhonda and Annika took that plunge over the balcony, leaving us with the kind of “someone died … tune in next season to find out who!” cliffhanger that drove viewers of “The Walking Dead” to distraction this year, it was hard to know if the show would rise again intact.
I’m covering Empire for the New York Times this season, starting with my review of last night’s season premiere, which I kicked off with this preamble about what the show’s done right and wrong in the past. Here’s hoping the juggernaut rights itself.