Q&A: ‘Empire’ show runner hopes Season 2’s return will still be ‘GIF-worthy’

‘Empire” show runner Illene Chaiken dishes on what to expect from the remainder of season 2

Ilene Chaiken is one of the executive producers of the Fox hit show “Empire.”

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The first family of music -- at least in TV land -- is back.

It’s been 117 days since we last saw the Lyon family at the center of Fox’s hit hip-hop family soap opera “Empire.” The midseason finale in December saw Lucious (Terrance Howard) losing control of his company to son Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). And who could forget that crazy fall Rhonda (Kaitlyn Doubleday) suffered down that flight of stairs?

While “Empire’s” ratings haven’t been as impressive as they were in its debut season -- when viewership grew week to week until hitting an all-time high of 16.7 million for its season finale -- the drama remains a high note for Fox.

“Empire” headed into its three-month hiatus with some power, averaging 11.2 million total viewers and nabbing a 4.4 rating among the advertiser-favored demographic of adults ages 18 to 49 with its midseason finale, and that’s not even factoring-in delayed viewing over seven days.


And industry watchers will no doubt keep watch on how “Empire” fares in the ratings with its second leg of its sophomore season, which kicks off Wednesday.

We spoke to “Empire” executive producer and showrunner Ilene Chaiken about how Season 2 is shaking out.

This break has been so long. Do you think this hiatus was a little much, any worry that fans will forget what happened?

For me, it just flew by. We’ve been in production throughout the hiatus, so it didn’t feel like a hiatus to me. I know we’ve been off the air for a while. I hope that it works. I hope we haven’t been gone too long. I don’t think it was. I’m really excited by what we’re coming back with, so hopefully the folks that love the show will feel that it was worth the wait.


Jussie Smollett, left, Taraji P. Henson and Trai Byers in “Empire.”
Jussie Smollett, left, Taraji P. Henson and Trai Byers in “Empire.”

How would you describe the second half of the season?

The second half of the season is really about the family coming back together. I think that’s the big headline: The Lyons family comes back together initially to vanquish their enemies, to take their company back while always and forever competing with one another for all the same things. So, there are shifting allegiances in the context of all that, but it’s very much about the love and the treachery among these wild and crazy people.

What were some of the narrative arc concerns you had this season?

We’ve started a couple of stories that we’ve been looking forward to playing through. The story of Lucius losing his company and coming back hard and reconnecting with his gangster past in the course of that has been a big story for us and the repercussions that it has on his children and on Cookie. The way that Cookie and Lucius reconnect in the course of that is one of the loveliest and most exciting things to me. I think you saw it in our midseason finale -- that last scene between Lucius and Cookie just brings back the connection between them, that connection that never goes away. That’s going to be something that we’ll explore much more deeply in the remainder of the season.

Was there a story line in the first half of the season that drew a lot of debate in the writers room?

Every single arc and story draws a lot of debate in the room. But certainly the Anika story line -- where we were going with Anika, how far we were going with her, and whether or not she is indeed the person who pushed Rhonda. And I would not ask anybody to assume that .... In the latter half of the season, I think audiences will come to see that Anika’s behavior, although it might have gone a little far, was all in some ways justifiable and motivated by how badly she was treated by the Lyons. She’s going to have a chance to recapitulate and make right the things that went wrong for her.

Is this going to lead to some GIF-worthy moments?


I hope so. I hope that it is always GIF-worthy.

Hakeem is the head of Empire Entertainment now that Camilla has taken over. This can’t last long. How is this going to affect the future of Lyon Dynasty?

Hakeem is going to have some big choices to make. He made an impetuous move, he made a power grab that miraculously worked. But it’s not clear that he’s ready for it and he’s going to have to choose between power and family and that’s going to be a tough choice for Hakeem. And he’s also going to have to choose between power and love because although when Camilla left in Season 1, he was heartbroken, he’s fallen in love with someone else. And he’s being offered the opportunity to have all of the power that he thought he was seeking, but at the expense of his heart.

One of last season’s most talked about moments was the fight between Anika and Cookie --

There will certainly be more conflicts on “Empire,” physical and psychological. I don’t like to call them catfights, even though sometimes the women do fight in that way. I like to think our women are every bit as able as men and that their martial skills compare and compete.

How detailed do you get in the script when writing those scenes?

Sometimes we get very detailed. I’ve learned over the years that those scenes really emerge on set and the actors have a lot to do with them, and the directors, and the stunt coordinators. I prefer not to say, “then she pulled her ear,” because it never happens that way. You spend all your energy as a writer writing and imagining the moments and then the actor will say, “I’m not pulling her ear.” But I will say that fight in Episode 10, it didn’t all wind up in the cut. Lee Daniels came into the room while we were breaking that scene and he was like, “Oh, I know exactly how this fight is going to play out.” He pitched out every single second of it. “She spits! And then the spit hits her! And then it drips down her face.” It never made the show but he had a really vivid fight in his mind. I think we should put all 25 of those spit shots on the DVD or something.

‘Empire” show runner Illene Chaiken dishes on what to expect from the remainder of season 2

Bryshere Gray takes over a meeting in the return of “Empire” on Wednesday night.

(Chuck Hodes / Fox)

You guys have the next Empire Artist Contest happening. How did that process go?

We selected the “Empire” artist. We finished shooting the season. That artist was selected by our executive producers. The artist that was chosen gets a very big feature spot on “Empire” in our second-to-the-last episode. It was surprisingly successful. It didn’t take a lot of our time and effort. And because music is such a big part of our show, our obligation was simply to make sure that the artist that won was featured in some small way. But we wound up really liking the work and they felt like “Empire” and we gave them a much bigger spot than we were obliged to give them.

The show definitely knows how to get heads turning with its guest spots. This season saw Alicia Keys, Rosie O’Donnell and Vivica Fox. Any exciting ones for the second half? Will we finally see Oprah stroll through?

I don’t know when we’re going to get Oprah. But the last half of the season is much more about the family. Frankly, we’re not having as many guest stars. We’re concentrating on telling our stories. That’s not to say there aren’t some amazing actors coming to the second half of the season, but they’re all there in service of the story. There wasn’t a single instance in which I was told, “Hey, so-and-so wants to be on the show, find a way to get them in,” and I had to jump through hoops and break my back trying to accommodate a story line. We simply cast all of the characters that we wrote with amazing actors. I’m not going tell you who all of them are because it would amount to spoilers.

The show got very political with a number of nods to the Black Lives Matter movement. In what ways will that continue, if at all? Any chances of digs at Donald Trump or other presidential candidates?

I don’t think we reference any of the presidential candidates in the latter half of the season. The show is political by its nature. Our characters have political points of view. Their lives are political. They know people in high places and there’s no question the show will continue to traffic in those themes because it’s natural to the show and fun and it’s what gets us all on fire.

The show has spawned a number of “Empire"-branded ventures --  clothing lines, soundtracks, etc. What’s the status of an “Empire” tour?

We’re talking about it. I’m not sure exactly what form it will take because there’s some really exciting ideas in the mix. We want them to always be ideas that firstly don’t get in the way of our making the show because that’s our first priority. And also we want to do something that feels like of the world. But, yes, there are definitely conversations going on about what that’s going to look like for “Empire.”

What cryptic clue can you give us about the spring premiere?

We’re going to see how far Lucius will go to get his company back.

I tweet about TV (and other things) here: @villarrealy

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