In case you haven’t heard, the Lyons are back on the prowl. And they’re hungrier than ever.
In its own right, FOX’s “Empire” hasn’t so much changed the TV world as it has epitomized it — soapy glamour, sex, violence, family drama, banging style and an on-point soundtrack — it’s all there, bold and unabashed. At its core, the storyline follows Shakespeare’s “King Lear:” an aging king, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard, “Iron Man”), must decide which of his three sons will inherit his hip-hop recording kingdom, Empire Entertainment. But unlike Lear, Lucious is lucid and ruthless — and he’ll stop at nothing to preserve his Lyon pride. That is, as long as the rest of the Lyons agree with him.
Season 2 Premiere
Wednesdays at 9 p.m.
Lucious and his family not only own Empire, they run the damn show. Oldest brother Andre (Trai Byers, “Selma”) is a Wharton-educated businessman who is intent on raising Empire stock and promoting himself to CEO; but his savvy is tampered by mental health issues and dark secrets, like his father’s murder of their cousin, Bunkie. Light-hearted Jamal (Jussie Smollett, “North”), the middle Lyon, was the R&B sensation that put Empire on the map; after a season of coming in terms with his homophobic father, he’s now the CEO of the company. Jamal’s good nature is often tested by his youngest brother, Hakeem (newcomer Bryshere Y. Gray), an up-and-coming rapper and ladies’ man with an appetite for cougars — including Lucious’s ex-fiance, Anika “Boo Boo Kitty” Calhoun (newcomer Grace Gealey).
But as in the animal kingdom, the real work isn’t done by the alpha male, but rather his leading lady. And she knows it. Infamous Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson, “Person of Interest”), hardened by a 17-year prison sentence for drug dealing, is back to claim her throne in the Empire, with or without her ex-husband.
For season two, Cookie and Lucious’s roles are flipped: Lucious is in jail for murder, while Cookie is orchestrating a “Free Lucious” concert that’s really geared toward winning back Empire investors. She’s banking on Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei, “Crazy, Stupid, Love”), a rich business mogul who’s smitten with Anika, to sign a $250,000 check to rocket Empire again — but this time, with Cookie rightfully on top. To her credit, Cookie insists that she’s “doing it for family,” but her equally power-hungry sons see ulterior motives.
Without Lucious in the lead, the younger Lyons must grow up on their own. Andre and controlling wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday, “Catch Me if You Can”) have big news ahead; Jamal is accepting his responsibilities as a boyfriend and gay rights advocate. Even wild child Hakeem is finding his way, ready to drop his first album. Conversely, the head Lyons — Cookie and Lucious — are floundering, as Cookie’s power missions fail and Lucious is stripped of entitlement behind cell walls.
But let’s be real. This is “Empire” we’re talking about, where a character’s pitfall always has a springboard at its base, ready for a full-throttle rebound. The show’s careful balance of its elements — of failures and successes, horrible violence and heartfelt reunion, disillusionment and humor — are what make it palatable. Where season two could have faltered with the solved case of inheritance, it pushes forward with the multidimensional growth of the Lyons.
But as Cookie says: we’re not out of the jungle yet.