‘Empire’ strikes back

(Fox)

What do you do once you’ve reached the top?

That is the question the cast and crew of FOX’s hit family/music drama, “Empire,” are trying to answer in the show’s second season, which airs its third episode Wednesday.

The Lee Daniels-created drama, which follows a family’s control of a hip-hop recording label named Empire Records, was the most watched show on television last year with more than 17 million tuning in for the finale.

It was the first program in at least 23 years to have viewership rise each week for the entire season.

“Empire” Season one gathered momentum with its original songs and internal family drama. It introduced Empire Record’s founder Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard), who rose to the top of the music industry from a garage in Philadelphia. Lucious is then given two years to live after he is diagnosed with ALS, forcing him to choose which of his sons, Andre (Trai Byers), Jamal (Jussie Smollett) or Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), should succeed him.

Lucious’ ex-wife and mother of the boys, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P Henson — who received an Emmy nomination for the role), adds on pressure with her return from jail, attempting to reconnect with her sons and get back her All of the power struggles made for a wildly entertaining ride, but the show moved at warp speed through too many plot lines.

Too much time was spent, for example, convincing us that Jamal faced homophobia from others, even after the point was clear. Not enough time was spent on Andre’s struggle with bipolar disorder or why Lucious hated Andre, so when we do discover the answer, it didn’t feel earned at all.

Thankfully, those issues haven’t appeared in season two thus far. The first two episodes, while still fast-paced, have more digestable plots.

There seems to be a very clear idea of each episode’s trajectory, allowing the show to focus more on its stronger plot lines. For example, now that Lucious’ two-year ALS death sentence cleared up as a misdiagnosis, the business-oriented tension has evaporated, allowing “Empire” to transition from a business drama to a family drama within a business setting.

This shift is far easier to navigate and far more entertaining — after all, it was the relationships between the brothers and parents that made the show a must-watch, not the prospect of who would become the next CEO.

At its heart, “Empire” is a family soap opera and shouldn’t stray from this genre. There aren’t enough shows that are so wonderfully dramatic, with over-the-top characters taking the viewer through a tangled web of subplots.

In its first season, we witnessed the toxic, repeating romance of exes Lucious and Cookie. We saw Jamal finally come out publicly while performing on stage. Oh, and season one ended with Lucious arrested and in jail for the murder of his longtime colleague.

Season two jumps right into familiar drama. There’s a conflict over Jamal assuming control of Empire Records, Lucious needs to get out of jail so that he can get back to the company before he loses it and Cookie is trying to create her own rival company. These are all plots that have ample opportunity for season two — which will be 18 episodes — to mature and explore.

“Empire” isn’t a perfect show, but it’s a good one. It’s actually a miracle that the show managed to balance so many plots at once in its first season and still produce a coherent and likable product. Most of that credit belongs to the phenomenal acting performances which can, at times, carry weak material. Season two’s focus takes the pressure off the cast and gives the audience the gravity it needs.

As it did in its seasonal debut, “Empire” is rumored to continue its slew of musical guest performances. Last season brought on Courtney Love and Snoop Dogg and the current season has already featured the likes of Chris Rock and Marisa Tomei — it’ll be intriguing to see how the show continues to handle so many characters. We might have already seen the musical highlight of the season, which came in the second episode, and featured Lucious recording a rap single in jail.

While the power struggle for control of Empire Records continues, ratings should only continue to grow. “Empire” has already seized the throne as must-watch television, and its reign is primed to continue for seasons to come.

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