“Empire” is all about big moments.
The statement is an irrefutable assessment of FOX’s flagship drama. It’s also the epitome of a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, this commitment to moments provides us with quotable lines from Cookie, gripping scenes with Lucious, and enthralling musical numbers by Jamal. This approach, amplified by fantastic acting from the show’s key cast members, is very much why “Empire” established itself as a must-see television event back in the winter and spring of 2015.
On the other hand, it often comes at the expense of a cohesive, long-term narrative. The effort to excite and shock at every conceivable turn can strip storylines of their meaning. There are certainly stakes on “Empire” — major, game-changing things obviously happen on a show predicated on big moments — but there is rarely a reason to care about those stakes.
The idea of becoming CEO of Empire, presented as the ultimate ambition in the early episodes, has been cheapened by the fact that a different character seemingly becomes CEO every week. Backstabbing and scheming mean little when characters seemingly change their alliances, loyalties and outlooks on a weekly basis. Political and cultural conversations carry little weight when characters adopt new perspectives at the drop of a hat. Legal challenges present little fear when the key characters regularly evade punishment.
Given this double-edged sword, “Empire” enters its third season in a very interesting position.
Critical support faded and buzz cooled throughout the second season. Ratings, moreover, quickly slipped from their monstrous first season levels.
The buzz and viewership, however, remained the envy of nearly every other television property. Outside of “The Walking Dead” and “Game Of Thrones,” there was no television drama generating as much excitement or attracting as many young adult viewers as the second season of “Empire.” It fell from its peak, but “Empire” was still a smash hit in season two. Viewers remained very committed to the show, very drawn to the characters, and very enthusiastic about sharing GIFs and quotes.
So what is the right approach? Should “Empire” reinvent itself by pumping the brakes and committing itself to a long-term, more methodical creative outlook? Or should it press down on the accelerator, and continue churning out major shocks, huge short-term plot events, and high-energy scenes on a weekly basis?
Based on the premiere episode, FOX’s music drama will take the latter approach in season three.
There is nothing subtle, delicate or restrained about the episode, which airs Wednesday night at 9PM ET. It moves from big scene to big scene, big event to big event.
Obviously, there is an extent to which this approach was unavoidable. Season two ended with a big cliffhanger — Rhonda and a pregnant Anika fighting on a balcony — and the premiere obviously has to address the situation. The fight inevitably manifests in a “big moment.”
Where “Empire” makes a conscious choice to stay the creative course, however, is in the fallout. What happens certainly reverberates throughout the episode (and will presumably do so in upcoming episodes), but Wednesday’s “Empire” does not put the rest of its universe on hold to deal with the fallout. It does not take a deep, methodical dive into the characters.
Rather, it hastens the pace, amplifies its soapy qualities, and churns out an array of over-the-top scenes.
We see Lucious make several outrageous power moves and menacing gestures, including one in the most preposterous of settings and contexts. We watch an aggressive brouhaha in a recording studio. We witness the rapid escalation of Tariq’s investigation into Lucious. We encounter an infinitely tense, combative dinner scene. We receive a show-stopping musical performance (preceded by an introduction to a song with edgy lyrics and major on-stage drama). We endure the pain of a character’s frightening emotional breakdown. We observe at least one other major, soapy development that, in the interest of avoiding spoilers, cannot yet be shared.
The scenes are generally all energetic, gripping, and exciting. And thanks to the characteristically game performances from all key cast members, they are fantastically fun. The season three premiere, for better or worse, is “Empire” at its most wild and intense.
Combined with a sweet, little flashback scene and a stellar introduction to new character Nessa (Sierra A. McClain), the season three premiere makes for an enjoyable hour. Those who liked the first two seasons of “Empire” — particularly the second — will have no obvious gripes with the season three premiere.
They may, and perhaps should, leave the episode with some concerns. “Empire” continues to move at a blistering pace, unveiling twists, turns and over-the-top moments in a manner unrivaled by anything else on television. We already saw the approach neuter the impact of major developments in season two, which in turn adversely affected the overall popularity of the show. As character and plot developments came to mean less, “Empire” came to mean less.
It is hard to imagine that correlation changing moving forward. If “Empire” cannot reestablish the importance of its storylines and commit to a firmer vision for its characters, it will, ultimately, continue losing the attention and interest of its viewers.
When judged in a vacuum, episodes of “Empire,” including Wednesday’s premiere, will often receive high marks. They successfully achieve the ultimate objective of television: entertaining audiences.
But will viewers persistently judge “Empire” in a vacuum? Should they?
“Empire” is blessed with an appealing central premise and an incredible set of actors and characters to whom fans are meaningfully connected. The more “Empire” indulges in scene-by-scene and episode-by-episode approaches, the more it risks jeopardizing that powerful connection.
Wednesday’s premiere is effective in that it keeps viewers entertained and proudly announces that “Empire” is back.
What it does not do – and what the next few episodes hopefully will do – is confirm that “Empire” is refocused. That “Empire” is evolved. That “Empire” is better.