“Empire,” last year’s chart-topping, paradigm-shifting, prime-time, hip-hop soap opera success, returns for its second season Wednesday on Fox.
If it earned only one major Emmy nomination — the one it most deserved, for Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon, the formerly incarcerated wife of presently incarcerated music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) — it occupied the public conversation and media interest in the way that broadcast-network dramas rarely do now. It was the No. 1 broadcast series, with a hit soundtrack album for related good measure, and demonstrated that a series in which nearly every major character is a person of color can cut across demographics and kill in the ratings.
The beauty of “Empire,” built-in from the beginning, and what makes it so widely appealing, is that it is total pulp in a really nice binding: “Dynasty” played as “King Lear.” It’s aggressively melodramatic, but in a way that doesn’t insult the intelligence — it is outlandish, but not ridiculous, and not the sort of series you would need to qualify as a guilty pleasure. It’s solidly made to be exactly what it is.
FULL COVERAGE: All things ‘Empire’
“Lear” was specifically on Danny Strong’s mind when he pitched “Empire” to co-creator Lee Daniels. (And the series still borrows titles from the text of Shakespeare plays.) But Cookie and Lucious are less Shakespearean figures than they are Olympian — a wrangling Zeus and Hera who share children and jockey for power and whose arguments manifest as fires and floods and earthquakes in the precincts below.
The current season picks up three months after the last, with Lucious in jail without bail, charged with the murder of a troublesome old associate, retainer and friend. (Well, he did it, after all.) Jail, of course, is a place where, being who he is, he has some power — a power that will be tested with the arrival of an old rival (Chris Rock) on the cellblock. (The diagnosis of rapidly advancing ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, that began the series and started Lucious thinking about his legacy and sons has been conveniently revised to the less grave myasthenia gravis — the show can go on.)
Cookie, meanwhile, with the support of rapping son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) and business-school son Andre (Trai Byers), is also trying to gain control of the label with an infusion of outside cash. (Marisa Tomei guest stars as the outside infuser.) Singing son Jamal (Jussie Smollett), whose homosexuality drove a wedge between them in Season 1, is currently aligned with his father.
If you can’t keep track of who’s siding with whom at any moment, who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down, it hardly matters because it’s going to change by the end of the hour, anyway.
But for all the switchback plotting, the sudden revelations that bring some earlier plot or plotline to naught, the show never feels too obviously manipulative or out of control. This is in part because of the restrained way it’s shot and acted; things get crazy for the space of a musical number, or a nervous breakdown, but mostly it purrs, even when violence is near.
There is good work up and down the cast (the smaller roles do much to set the tone, and to relieve the tension), but it remains Henson’s show in the end, both on the page and in the performing. In the battle for control of the corporate kingdom, Cookie remains the underdog, the one who has to live by her wits.
She is never not thinking — nor is Henson. It’s the sort of role that would have gone to Bette Davis or Barbara Stanwyck in Hollywood’s golden age, when Henson would have had her choice only of the sort of roles that would have gone to Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel.
For all her fabulousness, there is no camp in what she does, in a role that could very easily go over the top and stay there. Whatever else happens around her, however much the action wanders over to Lucious or to her now-competitive, now-cooperative sons, everything is most interesting as it relates to Cookie, because Henson makes her so vivid, so funny, so formidable, and so touching, and it’s a delight to watch her work.
There’s nothing on television more exciting.
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language)