At the sophomore season midpoint of “Empire,” a week of quick changes come to a close. First, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) was taking over Empire, then she creates her own company. Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) has PTSD from his kidnapping, then he doesn’t. Jamal (Jussie Smollett) is gay, then he kisses a girl. “Empire” ’s second season thus far has been riddled with half-played-out storylines. That, coupled with an inconsistent supporting cast, has taken a once-glossy primetime soap and dulled it down to its lackluster bits.
The root of “Empire” ’s problem is the mediocre prix-fixe menu of storylines. You can’t pick and choose which ones you want and none of the courses are all that great. The problematic writing reflects onto the characters and the show’s overall quality. The condemnable lack of ensemble scenes due to fragmented storylines came to a mass collision in Wednesday’s episode, leaving viewers with even more new questions than answers.
The Lyons no longer have rapport with supporting cast, most of which have come and gone sporadically. A three-dimensional Tianna (Serayah McNeill), likeable Onika (Grace Gealey) and stunning Elle Dallas (Courtney Love, “The People v. Larry Flynt”) have been replaced with Marisa Tomei’s painstakingly boring lesbian venture capitalist Mimi Whiteman. Tomei’s talent, paired with Whiteman’s character description, lends itself well to the submissive tone emulated throughout the first season. But ultimately, Mimi Whiteman and the lack of non-Lyon character development highlight the show’s dragging plot.
Though “Empire” isn’t down for the count quite yet. There are still moments of magic that sparked viewers’ passion during season one. The chemistry between Alicia Keys and Jussie Smollett is unbearably infectious, despite the show’s unwillingness to define their relationship. Cookie’s speech at the women’s prison, albeit unoriginal, felt genuine and Hakeem’s subsequent prison performance was one of the season’s strongest.
As the first installment of season two closes, “Empire” once again re-enters the “who’s gonna win the kingdom” storyline that has been looped in throughout its lifetime; there has just been another shuffling of teams. Ultimately, the season closes with its worst and best choices. A pregnant Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) was pushed down the stairs (presumably by a psychotic and also pregnant Onika), consequently throwing a wrench in one of the season’s few well-functioning storylines. And Lucious’s (Terrence Howard, “Iron Man”) long-awaited humanization comes after Hakeem casts the deciding vote to remove his father as CEO of Empire. His breakdown, complete with gunfire, tears and a comforting Cookie hopefully mark a turn for “Empire” ’s course.
“Empire” — the “Empire” that broke records and captivated viewers last season — is in the second season’s fall finale somewhere. Out of focus and hidden behind the copious amounts of plot, the drama’s true potential is kept afloat by the talent of the cast and the show’s character dynamics, but it will soon be in danger of drowning within itself.