To say there's buzz around the return of Empire, Fox's ballsy King-Lear-meets-Mahogany hit that kicks off its sophomore season on September 23rd, is an understatement. (It's like observing that there's a few GOP hopefuls running for President.) All eyes are on the series to see if it can maintain the level of drama, glam and delightful camp that turned it into a ratings powerhouse and Twitter champ. The series hits every pleasure point for successful trashy TV: ludicrous plots, gleaming fashions, breakout performances, and a true gasp of it's own ambitions to reinvent the glitzy nighttime soap for a new generation. Empire knows what it is, and is keeping it real.
If it's been a while since you caught Season One, or you missed the first run and want to jump into the game on Wednesday, here's a quick catch-up on where we left Empire Entertainment's iconic Lyons.
Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard)
The precisely coiffed founder and CEO of Empire Entertainment spent the majority of last season battling ALS, pitting his sons against each other to inherit the company, belittling middle child Jamal for his open homosexuality, and juggling current girlfriend Anika with ex-wife Cookie — when he wasn't distancing himself from a past that includes Cuba Gooding Jr. as a romantic rival and his point-blank assassination of cousin-by-marriage Bunkie (Antoine McKay), that is. All of this, while never letting a single hair fall out of place.
But he shouldn't have bothered. Turns out, instead of the death sentence of Lou Gehrig's disease, Luther's suffers from the rarely lethal myasthenia gravis, meaning he's not going anywhere. After all the Jamal derision, he finally wised up that the smooth singer is also the savviest Lyon, and passed the scepter of Empire's leadership to him (not a metaphor – he actually gave Jamal a scepter). He also confessed to fathering a fourth child, with Raven Symone.
Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson)
The Empire matriarch began the series by stepping out of the pokey after 17 years and proclaiming she was back to get what's hers. She clawed her way onto the Board and into an A&R position at the company, successfully launched the careers of two of their most promising artists, beloved middle child Jamal and R&B bi-sexual, Tiana (Taylor Swift bestie Serayah), struggled to find common ground with her alienated sons Andre and Hakeem, and wormed her way into Lucious's head (and briefly, his bed). This, it should be noted, while keeping her style on fleek and dropping wisdom at every turn.
But a ludicrously loopy set of plot twists reshuffled the deck, and now it's a whole new ballgame. With Jamal installed as head of Empire, Cookie finds herself banished from the Executive Suite and elected president of the "We Hate Lucious Club," ready to plot a takeover. She knows her ex killed her beloved cousin Bunkie (see above: pillow smother), and he knows she "went to the Berkshires" with bodyguard Malcolm, leaving the Lyons' relationship in tatters. Now Malcolm is gone, (we'll miss you, Derek Luke) and the hanging chad of Cookie's hit on the rose-wielding Frank Gathers' dangles; Cookie's looking for a new man, and looking over her shoulder.
Andre Lyon (Trai Byers)
The eldest and least joyous Lyon has a baby on the way with wife Rhonda, and a psycho-religious-sexual ménage-a-trois to untangle with musical therapist Michelle (Jennifer Hudson), but as always with Dre, it's all about the meds. If he sticks to the pills, the business-minded Lyon stands a fighting chance of rescuing Empire Entertainment from its stock price plummet after his father's arrest – assuming he and his merry band of Lucious-Haters can get back into the boardroom, that is. Staying on his medication might also keep his deadly secrets from slipping out: his father killed Bunkie, his wife killed Vernon (RIP, Malik Yoba), he occasionally tries to kill himself. But considering Andre plots his intrigue by literally speaking the plans out loud into the notes function on his phone ("Figure out how to undermine Hakeem at Leviticus"), the good money is on some of those covert cats out of the bag.
Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett)
After a season of finding his footing, everything is coming up – and coming out – Jamal. As the newly declared head of Empire, the middle Lyon son controls the power and the purse, complete with a fine new man at his side (Eka Darville). No longer the little boy banished to the garbage can, he is his father's only stalwart ally – bringing back his Pop's songwriting mojo after a Cookie-influenced round of writer's block, and then dangling Billy Beretti off a balcony to retrieve the rights to the early Lucious Lyon catalogue. But with great power, comes great responsibility. Now in charge of a roster of artists from Black Mythology to Wallywowwow to Coagulation (not making these names up), Jamal must steer Empire out of the red, stop rival Creedmoor's creep towards their market share, fight off the coming Cookie-led takeover, and hopefully, for our sakes, remove his brother's single "Drip Drop" from steady rotation.
Hakeem Lyon (Bryshere Y. Gray)
The youngest son and slightly inexplicable ladies' man has the most issues to confront in Season Two. Still processing his love/hate relationship with brother Jamal, abandonment issues with his ex-con mom, and his blind rage at his father for banishing his cougar girlfriend (Naomi Campbell), aspiring rapper Hakeem needs to work on himself, if not his rhymes ("Drip Drop," anyone?). He left a path of destruction in the finale, making good on the Snoop-witnessed threat to bed Anika and joining the Unholy Alliance to take Empire back. Still up in the air – the status of his teen dream beard relationship with Tiana, whether Camilla is catching a flight back to New York, and if we'll ever see more of the AzMarie in his crew.
Rhonda Lyon (Kaitlin Doubleday)
Strong, scheming, and loyal to a fault, Rhonda took a mighty tumble towards the freshman season finish, going from the hot brains behind Dre to the pimped out prize for a geriatric Mr. Moneybags (M. Emmet Walsh), and then adding manslaughter to the resume for good measure. While her candlestick clubbing of Vernon can be chalked up to self-defense, Rhonda's decision to swear Andre to secrecy over the crime seems destined to blow up in their faces. Now in the family way, we can only guess the baby is Andre's — but because this is Empire, there's even money on anyone from Lucious to Black Rambo being this kid's father. Here's hoping her ambition roars back, along with her smarts.
Anika Calhoun (Grace Gealey)
Forget Beretti, Kid Fo-Fo, or fake fur — no one took more shit from the Lyon family than Lucious' fiancé, Anika. But with pearls in place and an amazing grasp of both self-preservation and Swedish, she always lands on her feet. Once Lucious cheats on her with Cookie and then sits ringside at the all-but-guaranteed Alexis vs. Krystal catfight between her and Cookie, Boo Boo Kitty sees the writing on the wall. She walks out on Lucious and Empire, landing a key spot at competitor Creedmoor and wastes no time trying to poach as many Lyon-signed acts as possible, starting with Hakeem. The youngest Lyon son decides to stay with Empire, but the two still team up for an act of in flagrante to get back at Lucious. And proving that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, Anika swallows her animosity (if probably not her lunch) to line up with Cookie and take Empire back.
Porsha (Ta'Rhonda Jones) and Becky (Gabourey Sidibe)
With so much written about Cookie's verbal gems, it's easy to forget the Lyon's longsuffering assistants and their snark-filled asides. Porsha may spend the majority of her time staring blankly outside boardrooms, fetching angrily lobbed shoes and feigning ignorance to most situations – "I ain't know nothing since Y2K!" – but she's Cookie's secret weapon. Meanwhile, Lucious' girl Friday slowly gained more knowledge and therefore more respect and power all season. Remember, "You use your inside voice when you talk to Becky."
Celebrity Guest Stars
Elle Dallas (Courtney Love), Michelle White (Jennifer Hudson), Puma (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), Woman Singing at Piano in Flashback (Mary J. Blige), Snoop Dogg, Rita Ora, Gladys Knight, etc. – Season One of Empire was jammed with award winners, platinum-selling A-listers and "seriously, that guy?" stars (see: Judd Nelson). Some, like Love and Hudson, had multiple-episode storylines; others, like Blige, were truly blink-and-you-missed-it quick. While it's unknown who from the above roster will make another appearance in Season Two, Fox has already teased the guest appearances of Ludacris, Chris Rock, Marisa Tomei, Pitbull, Magic Mike's Adam Rodriguez (as a romantic interest for Cookie) and a woman who seems like she was born to star in the joyous pile of cheese that is Empire: Mariah Carey.