Empire Review

Sophomore Year Midterm Report Card

Last year, Empire was coming off hot–record breaking ratings, renewed after two episodes, and even an Emmy nomination for lead actress Taraji P. Henson. I wrote a freshman report card for Empire and graded the show based on its representation of race, gender, and sexuality. Despite everyone’s adoration for Cookie and Jamal Lyon, my report found that Empire still had room for improvement–lots of it. Season 2 is halfway over so let’s check in how Empire is doing with its representation of race, gender, and sexuality–and since we’ve been recapping all season long, we can also review plot and pacing.

Race

Last year, I asked Empire to bring in characters with a wider array of skin tones to balance out the main cast, who could all pass a paper bag test. Or, at the very least, the few dark-skinned characters–Vernon, Porsha, and Becky–could be brought out of subservient positions and be given greater relevance to the plot. Unfortunately, Empire is still mostly neglecting its existing dark-skinned characters–Vernon is dead, Porsha’s only job is to stand there and say something that is either obnoxious or amusing (usually just obnoxious), and while Becky did get a major promotion and a love interest, she is still a background player. There are some new dark-skinned additions to the cast–power-hungry, boob-baring prosecutor Roxanne Ford (Tyra Ferrell), shady lawyer Thirsty Rawlings (Andre Royo), and talented rapper Freda Gatz (Bre-Z). I was about to side eye the fact that the darker skinned characters are criminals or people with questionable morals, but then I remembered none of the characters in the cast can be held up as a beacon of goodness. Still, it’d be nice if the writers developed Becky and Porsha more. Becky’s love scene with rapper T-Poppa was sweet and groundbreaking for showing a plus-size woman treated as desirable, but then the show sidelined her again.  Sigh.

Latinos have also become a part of the Empire cast, reflecting the growing Latino population in the United States, but they’re also underdeveloped. Yes, Laz Delgado’s (Adam Rodriguez) arc as a promoter/double agent for The Bulls and love interest for Cookie had major effects on the plot but the other Latino characters–Laura Calleros (Jamila Velazquez) and the members of the Not So Supremes–didn’t do anything except sing tracks for the Empire soundtrack.

The only new character who has made a significant impact on the plot is Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei), the double-crossing Empire investor, but she’s quickly being written out as Camilla (Naomi Campbell) catwalks her way back to center stage. 

Grade: B- (You can add all the new characters you want, but the efforts feel empty if the diverse characters are caricatures or props. I’ll give Empire an “A” for effort, though.)

Gender

Despite the increase of female characters on the roster, Cookie Lyon is still the only one who gets any nuance. The others are simply paper dolls moving in the background who are defined by their jobs or one single character trait. Porsha is Comic Relief, Carol is a Drug Addict, Freda is an Angry Rapper, and now that Rhonda is pregnant, all her character does is blab about her pregnancy to Anika.

Speaking of Anika, no other female character has been as mistreated as poor Anika. Meek little Boo Boo Kitty had a hard enough time in Season 1 trying to hold her own against Cookie, the ferocious Lyon. I had some hope for the character when it appeared she might be used as a double agent for Lyon Dynasty and Empire. Motivation! Characterization! We could have had it all! I imagined storylines where Anika and Cookie would be begrudging frenemies, caught between their hatred of Lucious and each other as they try to elevate Lyon Dynasty together.

And yet it was all unraveled when Cookie stubbornly refused to work with Anika based on petty differences. For reasons known only in the Empire writers’ room, Anika’s character transformed from smart, ambitious executive to bunny boiler, obsessed with the trifling Lyon son, Hakeem. I suppose I could buy the storyline that Anika sees her pregnancy as a way gain power at Empire or Lyon Dynasty (in the make-believe-TV-world where those are the only two professional options). But by the end of the first half of the season, Anika is insisting she’s in love with Hakeem, the 20-something son of her former fiance. Girl, what? And now, we’re being led to believe Anika pushed Rhonda down the stairs as a power grab move. Girl, what? Empire could have used the Anika character to depict the challenges women executives face in the music industry or have her join forces with Cookie in a “hell hath no fury like women betrayed by Lucious Lyon” alliance but instead, Boo Boo Kitty has become ridiculous and sad soap opera villain.

Dominique Deveraux would be so disappointed.

Grade: C (Cookie still gets an “A” but other female characters are failing. Let the other girls catch up, Empire!)

Sexual Orientation

In the first season, Empire tried (and mostly failed) to use Jamal as a vehicle to discuss homophobia in the Black community. In season 2, issues of sexuality have taken a backseat. We did meet a few new LGBT characters: co-creator Danny Strong guest starred as a pretentious gay artist who drives a wedge between Jamal and his boyfriend Michael. We also met Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei), Lucious’ business partner, who also happens to be a lesbian. Their sexual orientation is not their sole defining trait and neither character was used to set up an After-School Special-type storyline. This was an important step in the right direction!

Empire flirted with the topic of fluid sexuality this season but then backed away. Mimi almost participated in a threeway with Lucious but then declared herself to be a “strictly dickly” lesbian. Jamal had a one night stand with Skye Summers (Alicia Keys) and despite Lucious’ excitement when he thought Jamal had “turned” straight, Jamal insisted he’s still gay. It’s not that people can’t experiment with their sexuality, but Empire still seems hesitant to address bisexuality. Last season, they introduced the topic with Tiana and then backed away. What gives?

Grade: B (Without question, Empire includes a sophisticated representation of LGBT characters that is far better than their depictions of women, Blacks, or Latinos. And while I don’t think LGBT characters need to stay perched on soap boxes to earn an “A,” Empire could earn some extra credit points by showing more of the diversity within the LGBT community.)

Plot and Pacing

They say that TV shows with stellar first seasons tend to fall into a sophomore slump in their second season and unfortunately, Empire is no exception.  The writers knew that viewers tuned in for the twists in the first season so they turned up the dials but the results were nothing but a hot mess.

It’s disappointing because Empire really did have great plots on their hands–Lucious battling against a corrupt prosecutor, Hakeem getting kidnapped by the Bulls, Andre being manipulated by his pastor, Becky’s romance with J-Poppa, Cookie’s search for Carole with her sister Candace–but the writers quickly abandoned each one to start on the next one, leaving a lot of unanswered questions and frustration.

In the episode “Sinned Against,” Pepper (Rosie O’Donnell) informs Cookie that her sister Carol is hanging around Boz, a no good dealer. Pepper insists on accompanying Cookie when they look for Carol because as Pepper warns,”Ain’t no way Boz’s crew is going to talk to you the way they talk to me.” Naturally, you think there’s going to be a big confrontation but the women just find Carol sleeping in the street. What? Why mention the villainous drug dealer if we were never going to see him?  Aaargh, so lame!

The writers seem to get so over excited about the next thing they plan to pull out of their plot hat (or do they use a screenwriters’ version of Mad Libs?) that they never let the viewers enjoy a fully developed plot. If Empire keeps trying to outdo itself within each episode, the show is quickly going to run out of steam and implode. When Empire picks up again in the spring, hopefully, the writers will spend more time developing plots and characters before jumping to the next one.

Grade: C- (SLOOOOWWWWWWW DOOOOWWWN. The audience isn’t going anywhere, writers! Let the plots breathe!)

Empire returns to Fox

March 30, 2016

  • Great job, Susan!! You are so much kinder to Empire than I could ever be! I am well aware that the writing team is diverse, but I give Empire a big ole “F” (okay maybe a D) on race issues. The colorism is just too played out as is the portrayal of a professional woman as a psycho – really Boo Boo Kitty, really? Too many people are caricatures. I thought I would lose my mind when Porsha – a grown woman is depicted saying that she needed to ‘boo boo’ on a work-related phone call. I felt even more embarrassed that this is what a diverse writing team decided would be funny.

    And, oh, my the writers seem to have a severe form of ADD when it comes to plots.

    Ok, rant over! Thanks again for the analysis.