The second season of the sensation that conquered television — and proved the commercial power of diversity — opens with a premiere popping with knowing provocation and outrageousness. It’s Empire in excelsis, proudly revving its souped-up storytelling engine and relishing its moment. Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie wastes no time reminding you why she’s the breakout character of 2015. She spits venom (“Your father is a tampon!”), she dresses as an ape to make a point about the mass incarceration of African-American men, she pimps out female flesh to win financing from a lusty lesbian billionaire with a loaded name, Mimi Whiteman (an arch Marisa Tomei). Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton gets poked and CNN anchor Don Lemon gets called out for his shamelessness. Chris Rock plays a humorless drug lord — a casting misfire. But there is a decapitation, and there’s fashion by Tom Ford, and there are wigs, so many wigs.
The next two episodes are less raucous — and less inspired. Empire can be electric when it engages our culture, and poignant when it digs into the minds and hearts of the Lyon clan, particularly the big three of Cookie, Lucious (Terrence Howard), and their gay musical-prodigy son, Jamal (Jussie Smollett, so magnetic and authentic). And the original, well-integrated musical numbers remain a delight. But when it’s about only their warring for power over the family business, Empire Entertainment, it’s just solid soap. Motifs repeat. This year it’s Lucious, not Cookie, scheming to retake control of Empire — a role reversal that brings out the fire in Howard. Some characterizations are growing tedious: Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) is still petulantly chasing after respect, Andre (Trai Byers) is still flailing to shore up his faltering position. Worry not about Empire getting too wiggy. For now, worry that it might become a broken record.
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