UPDATE: Fox announced Friday that Jussie Smollett has been removed from the final two episodes of Empire‘s current fifth season.
EARLIER: “Let’s get this straight, I’m in it with Jamal for the long run.”
That is what Jussie Smollett, who has played Jamal Lyon on Empire since the beginning, told EW ahead of last fall’s season 5 premiere. That feels like years ago as Smollett is suddenly embroiled in one of Hollywood’s strangest and surprising controversies. On Thursday, the 36-year-old turned himself into police on a felony charge of filing a false police report, with Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson saying that after being dissatisfied with his Empire salary, Smollett orchestrated the racial and homophobic attack against himself.
With a criminal case and jail time staring him in the face, Smollett has bigger concerns, but, despite Fox’s previously backing him, it has to be likely that he could soon be on his way out of the show that launched him to TV stardom. EW previously confirmed that scenes centered on Smollett has been reduced and rewritten, while Fox and 20th Century Fox Television’s latest statement says, “We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process. We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
Empire was built around established stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, but Smollett and Jamal have always been at the heart of the series. Co-creator Lee Daniels pulled from his own childhood experiences for the gay middle son of the Lyon music dynasty, including for a disturbing season 1 scene of a young Jamal being put in a trash can by his father after wearing women’s clothes. Jamal’s storylines have often been viewed as a high point on the series and continued to break new ground this season with Jamal being in a relationship with an HIV-positive man.
Smollett is also the most important musical element of Empire. Cookie (Henson) and Andre (Trai Byers) are only involved in the business side, while Lucious (Howard) rapping is a rarity, leaving only Jamal and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) as the prominent artists on the show. And while rap songs from Gray can often be catchy, it’s Smollett’s sultry R&B tracks that stand out, explaining how he’s been able to launch his own music career outside of Empire.
With all that being said, Smollett’s forced exit would be a loss, but not one they can’t overcome. Shows such as Two and a Half Men and The Ranch have proved that shows can survive and even flourish in the wake of high-profile firings. And while Empire is not the pop culture phenomenon that it was upon premiering and is down 15 percent from last year in the coveted 18-49 demo, it’s still a strong ratings performer, often winning Wednesday nights for Fox, which is dealing with its own uncertainty amid the Disney merger.
Speaking to EW, crisis communication expert Don Tanner suggests Fox “not do anything rash.” He added, “Considering today’s racially and politically charged climates, our society tends to rush to judgement before it has all of the facts. We see it time and time again – including in this case. At most Fox might issue a statement could say something along the lines of: ‘We are hopeful Jessie and law enforcement officials will work together toward identifying the truth and resolving this matter.’ Any actions related to firing the actor should be deferred until more is known.
When asked about the show possibly nearing the end of its run, Smollett previously told EW, “Obviously it would be up to the network, but I still do feel like we have good wattage in us, because it ain’t been that damn long. But I do think that our stories are firm and grounded. And I definitely would say that I want us to dip out while we’re still telling great stories. My whole thing is this, as long as we’re telling great stories and we’re able to entertain the fans and as long as we’re still excited about doing it then we’ll go. But I think all of us are smart and all of us are artists and all of us will know when the time is right to be, “Alright y’all, it’s time for the Lyons to sleep.” But that time is not now, not with season 5 on the horizon.”
Well, the time could be now for Jamal Lyon. If Smollett is indeed written off of Empire, which Fox and the creative team continued to deny before his arrest, then there are options. Could he ride off into the sunset with his fiancé Kai, or could the show pull a last-minute audible and have Jamal be the person in that mysterious coffin? Empire returns March 13, but with many of season 5’s remaining episodes in the can, we likely won’t know until the end of the season — or maybe even next.
— Lynette Rice contributed to this report