If Lemonade exists in the Empire-verse, the Lyon family must be wondering what the fuss is about. An R&B record that uses extremely thinly veiled autobiographical tales of family turmoil as fodder for art? That’s pretty much every song Lucious, Jamal and Hakeem have ever made. Here in the real world, though…well, once you’ve heard Beyoncé’s latest, “Boom Boom Boom Boom” sounds a whole lot less impressive. Now her cathartic confessional album is threatening to do to this series musically what the presidential primary already kinda did to it politically: take a show that depends on feeling utterly of-the-moment and make it feel out of date. Like, can a coffee-house performance of a song called “Good Enough” really compete as a statement of personal freedom with, er, “Freedom”?
Maybe this is an undue burden to place on “More Than Kin,” this week’s Empire episode. It could just as easily have been a comparison with fallen genius Prince, whom Jamal evokes with his live-band presentation, high falsetto, and “am I straight or gay” sexuality, and that wouldn’t have been fair either. As fun as the music on this show has been, it’s not really meant to go toe-to-toe with the titans of pop, Timbaland production notwithstanding. But – perhaps due to the season’s two-part structure and longer total running time than the short, surprise-hit Season One – the story is getting a bit soft, or more than a bit. That’s when you start noticing problems you might otherwise have overlooked, or never even thought of as a problem at all.
Take the Annika pregnancy plot (please!). “Baby mama drama” is such a common concept that you were probably sick of hearing the term alone ten years ago, let alone seeing it play out yet again in a high-profile primetime soap. So far, nothing that’s happened here has been surprising enough to merit going to this tapped-dry well. Getting knocked up to force her way into the family, assaulting a rival, having a health scare, meddling grandparents, a jealous fiancée – we’ve seen it all as many times as any maternity-ward nurse. The writing even walks into the icky idea that stressed-out pregnant women are essentially killing their babies, as if docile brood mares would be preferable to real human beings. (Or backstabbing creeps in Annika’s case, but you get the point.)
A similarly hoary and, frankly, sexist trope pops up in the form of Harper, the high-powered journalist who’s been working on a profile of Lucious for the past couple of episodes. “Lady reporter sleeps with source” is such a common plot device in movies and television you’d think journalism school was just a form of Tinder that leaves you tens of thousands of dollars in debt, yet it has so little basis in the real-life behavior of women in the field that to promulgate the notion is borderline offensive. Her behavior after Lyon cuts their liaison short is equally odd: Rather than publish the evidence that his “late” mother is still alive – a scoop if ever there was one, especially after he and Cookie conspired to help a competing site post a profile of him first – she just hands the photos to Andre in order to stir up trouble in the family. Once again, the professional takes a back seat to the personal.
The weakness doesn’t stop there. In the space of a single episode, Laura calls off her engagement to Hakeem when she discovers he’s going to be a father, then reconsiders and puts the ring back on at Annika’s bedside. If it’s that easy to resolve, why create that particular conflict in the first place? Elsewhere, Cookie is working overtime to convince the company’s recalcitrant board of directors to name Lucious CEO once again. “So let me guess,” Andre says to her when she approaches him with her plan, “The family needs to present a united front.” Don’t they always? If a character on the show can see it coming from far enough away to be sarcastic about it, the audience sure as hell can, too. As for said board members’ brilliant plan for the family matriarch and patriarch to split Chief Executive Officer duties, you have to wonder if maybe they sustained a severe brain injury on the way to the office. That’s the only way to explain an idea that transparently doomed to failure – other than “the writers of the show wanted to gin up some cheap drama, plausibility be damned.”
But in at least one place where it counts, Empire‘s still got it. Left to their own devices, the Brothers Lyon have the same funny, breezy rapport they’ve always had when their parents don’t have them pitted against one another. Meeting with Hakeem following the young M.C.’s ouster as Empire’s CEO and his subsequent gentlemen’s-club bender, Jamal tells him, “You smell like stripper ass.” “Stripper ass smells good,” the younger Lyon replies. Touché! When the concerned big brother asks if Laura really did end things for sure – “Did she actually say it’s over?” – the reply, “She slapped me at the strip club,” serves as a solid answer. Yeah, that’d do it! Eventually, all three Lyons bond by ruefully laughing at just how bad the youngest’s life is going. It’s a warm, believable moment, and it shows just how good actors Jussie Smollett, Bryshere Gray and Trai Byers are at playing a family that’s seen each other at their worst but still feels a deep connection to one another, no matter the bullshit. That’s the kind of energy Empire needs right now: more connection, less bullshit.
Previously: Chairmen of the Board