“Empire” may never be the sensation it was a year ago, when people made sure they were in front of their TVs on Wednesday nights.
But executive producer Danny Strong has taken tentative steps to deliver an episode worthy of the show’s first season.
Three and a half months ago, when “Empire” took an extended hiatus, it left viewers hanging with a couple of classic soap opera cliffhangers. Pregnant Rhonda Lyon (Kaitlin Doubleday) was pushed down a staircase in her home and left for dead on the marble floor. In the boardroom at Empire Records, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) lost his company (this seems to happen every eight episodes or so) when his youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), voted him out to side with his ex-girlfriend, devious cougar Camilla Mark (Naomi Campbell).
Strong, who wrote and directed Wednesday night’s episode, “Death Will Have His Day,” opens with his characters literally scrambling to save themselves. A bloodied and frantic Rhonda regains consciousness and throws her broken phone at the front door to set off the house security system. In the episode’s best scene, a furious Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) breaks a broom handle over Hakeem’s back for being such an ingrate — and dividing the family. In its most ominous scene, Lucious and Hakeem share a conversation in the same location as one of last season’s most despicable scenes of violence. There are enough schemes, power plays and counter-moves to have the show’s fans tweeting themselves to the brink of exhaustion.
But even though the stunt casting and other distractions have been cleared away, something is still missing.
The acting is all over the place, making the show sag when it should, literally, sing. In one corner, we have Howard doing his menacing thug routine, playing with guns, talking like a teenager. In another, there’s Henson firing off her zingers — one zinger, comparing Camilla to Yoko Ono, will remind people of her “fake-ass Halle Berry” heyday. In the third corner of the room is Trai Byers, who tries to do some real acting as Andre and Rhonda deal with the inevitable fallout from her “accident.” And in the fourth corner is Gray, who is out of his depth, over his head and under his feet as the son crowned as CEO of Empire Records. Strong and company have miscalculated to expect a performer of Gray’s limited range to carry such a large portion of the show.
The season finale is May 18, giving “Empire” some time to really pull itself together and make fans proud again. It’s still a little shaky, but next week’s episode has one scene that will have everyone cheering.