Why 'Empire' Still Rules Prime Time

More sex, money, music, murder — Fox's hip-hop soap opera keeps setting the drama to 11

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in Fox's hit hip-hop soap opera 'Empire.' Credit: Chuck Hodes/Fox

And you thought Empire was going to start taking itself seriously with Season Two.

Well, no, obviously you didn't — the last thing this marvelously nonsensical ratings blockbuster would ever do is get respectable on us. Empire has stepped up the crazy in its sophomore season — and that was exactly the right move to make.

Taraji P. Henson's Cookie stomps through the new episodes in a champagne supernova of leopard-print hats and eyelashes; at any given moment, she is the most fabulously mismanaged spot of real estate in New York City. As Luscious' bourgie ex-fiancee Anika (a.k.a. Boo Boo Kitty) tells her, in perhaps their most shade-free conversation ever, "You're badder than all the animals whose prints populate your wardrobe." The hip-hop soap became the surprise blockbuster of 2015 last winter, as Terence Howard's Lucious Lyon and his back-stabbing ex Cookie battled for control over the family business, along with their three sons. All their most outrageous schemes (and plot twists) (and fashion decisions) got validated when the first season got bigger in the ratings week by week — the kind of network success story that just doesn't happen any more. So the new-school Empire is more bananas than ever —  more sex, money, family, drugs, music, murder.

When we returned to the Lyon's den, Empire Entertainment mogul Lucious sat in jail awaiting trial for killing his thug cousin Bunkie, except his posh prison cell looked like a champagne room from a vintage Puffy video. While he's in lockdown, his ex-wife tried to consolidate her grip on the family business as well as Luscious' family jewels. Even when Cookie visited Lucious in prison, their sexual tension and eye-contact combat reached practically pornographic levels. Their three sons — Jamal, Andre and Hakeem — kept hatching their schemes to take over the action, yet there's no chance for them to shine-block their parents, not when mom and dad are Taraji P. Henson and Terence Howard. When Luscious got out on bail, the terms prohibited him from entering the offices; his son sucks up by saying that's like banning a king from mingling with his subjects. Luscious replies: "Blasphemy. I'm a god."

And like the Almighty, Empire works in mysterious ways, because you never know what is going to happen, except it'll probably make less sense than what happened a few minutes ago. So far this season it's been a whirlwind involving Pitbull, Ludacris, a lawyer named Thirsty Rawlins, and Cookie telling Kitty Boo Boo, "Let me tell you something, ho — if it weren't for women like me, bitches like you would spend a lifetime on your knees. Or underneath my 20-year-old son." Becky G shows up as the Beyonce in Hakeem's new multi-culti girl group Rainbow Sensation, which Cookie accurately says "may be the dumbest name known to man," though only because she hadn't yet met Hakeem's other new girl group Mirage a Trois. Cookie gives their singer some free advice ("You need to find your drawers") and lectures her son on the wages of moguldom: "Hooking up with the lead singer in your all-female group? That is an Unsung episode waiting to happen."

Part of the excitement is that the show has become a live weekly TV event — the agony of waiting all week for Wednesday night is a crucial part of the fun, as the nation fiends for the next Cookie tantrum the way we wait for new Kanye tracks. Just as there's something old-school about the Dallas/Dynasty approach to the soap — the whole story comes directly from Season Five of Dallas, when that old dirty bastard Jock Ewing divided the Ewing Oil business among his sons — there's also something old-school about how Empire goes for the throat every week as a real-time pop-event spectacle. It's a TV smash that greedily exploits the medium rather than tiptoeing prissily around it and acts like the whole Golden Age art-house recap-bait quality-drama cult never happened. Fuck prestige, let's Cookie.

Last time you never knew when you were getting jumped by the next absurd plot twist, usually involving Courtney Love or Judd Nelson. This season has brought us Chris Rock as a cannibal drug lord and Marisa Tomei as a lesbian billionare wheeler-dealer, brilliantly named "Mimi Whiteman." (For this role alone, Marisa Tomei's Oscar credentials can never be questioned again.) But nobody steals a dollar or a scene from Cookie. When Boo Boo Kitty sleeps with Marisa Tomei to seal the deal and fails, Cookie splutters, "You can't even dyke right!" But Empire gets everything right — because Cookie keeps finding new ways to do wrong.