Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Is Empire a muted family drama trapped inside a goofy nighttime soap?

Illustration for article titled Is Empire a muted family drama trapped inside a goofy nighttime soap?

When Empire’s first season concluded with Lucious behind bars for Bunkie’s murder, the only question was how quickly season two would untangle that knot. Lucious, after all, is the catalyst for most of Empire’s action, so having him sidelined in prison wasn’t going to work long-term. That’s why exploring the aftermath of Bunkie’s murder has never been a worthy investment. The murder was an important component of the pilot, in that it demonstrated Lucious’ willingness to go to deadly extremes to protect what he’s built. But it hasn’t paid off in the story, which promised consequences that never came. Lucious was bound to be acquitted for the murder, and the other members of the Lyon family are mostly unbothered by Lucious’ potential guilt, so he hasn’t lost any of his equity or leverage within the family. To cut and run from a storyline as quickly as Empire has done with Lucious’ legal woes is usually poor form, but in this case, it’s a huge relief.

In “Be True,” everyone is in a lighter mood. Lucious is a free man, and Roxanne Ford has taken a leave of absence, presumably to recover from acute professional embarrassment and several compound facial fractures. Andre breezes back into his old Empire stomping grounds with a pep in his step and the Gutter Life in his heart. Jamal makes a handshake agreement on a tour with Ne-Yo and his biggest concern is whether or not to take his smoking hot, if dreadfully dull boyfriend on the road with him. Hakeem has found his latest Latina ingenue in Laura, and Mirage A Trois is back on track toward landing their Maxim cover. When he frets about Vernon’s death, Cookie tells him not to rock the boat. They’ve got a good thing going at Lyon Dynasty, and whether it’s Bunkie, Vernon, or Jamel’s head in a box, they’ve got too much going for them to waste time mourning the dead.

The calm is only momentary, but that it exists at all speaks to what a burden Empire was under with Lucious’ murder rap. Now that it’s gone, the show is instantly more likeable and more fun. But even at its best, season two still feels like a beautiful supercar with no engine. The battle lines between Empire and Lyon Dynasty are still not clearly drawn, and there are no real stakes in that feud. Where is Lyon Dynasty’s money coming from? Why doesn’t their situation feel desperate? Can it possibly be this easy to build a record label, particularly when a mega-powerful music mogul is your sworn enemy? There’s just a complete absence of conflict.

None of this is necessarily bad, depending on what show Empire is trying to be, but that’s usually difficult to determine. “Be True” resembles a version of the show that started to bubble up at various points in season one. This version of Empire is sort of like DJ Khaled Presents Parenthood, a family drama set inside a hip hop label, with occasional soapy flourishes, but a primary focus on the relationships rather than the plot twists. The still underutilized Andre drives the latest Lyon conflict, deciding the exhumation of Vernon’s body is the perfect time to get right with the Lord by way of a good ol’ fashioned, sin-absolving baptism. Andre’s pastor tells him the first step is confessing his sins, which makes Rhonda incredibly nervous for obvious reasons. Andre stops short of confessing to his involvement in Vernon’s death, but he does admit to Lucious that he attempted suicide and initially teamed with Cookie following her release, and he confesses to Hakeem and Jamal that he was the one who orchestrated the studio robbery.

Andre’s story is not a terribly salacious or scandalous one. It’s actually kind of sweet. He wants the support of his family, even in the midst of disarray, as he takes the next step in his newfound faith. His brothers begrudgingly accept the invitation, and Jamal and Cookie call a momentary truce to support Andre in his time of need. The only person resisting the family reunion is Lucious, who still can’t get onboard with Andre’s religious streak and surprises everyone by showing up to the church at the last moment. He doesn’t stay long though, since the sight of Andre being dunked in the consecrated water reminds him of a terrifying childhood incident in which his mother tried to drown him in the bathtub. Basically, Andre can’t do anything without triggering Lucious’ traumatic memories, so he can’t be around Andre at all. I’m getting impatient with the flashbacks, since there’s no indication of what they could possibly be building toward, but there’s a nugget of a good idea in here somewhere. At least, it’s a potentially good idea for the family drama version of Empire.

But by the end of the episode, Hakeem is getting a hood pulled over his head before being snatched into a van, which is the soapiest thing ever. Before that, there’s the prurient scenes between Jamal, Michael, and Chase One, who decides his next conceptual art project should be a performance piece in which he splits up a high-profile gay couple using the power of furry fellatio. Then there was the arrival of Thirsty, who is now full-time at Empire taking the place of Vernon as…whatever Vernon’s job was supposed to be. Thirsty hires another team of music stealing goons to steal Lyon Dynasty’s music, only for them to be thwarted by Cookie and Laz (Adam Rodriguez), her new concert promoter and potential love interest. Laz will also help get to the bottom of a robbery incident involving Tiana that somehow turned into an extortion attempt.


There’s very little resolution to any of the soapy conflicts introduced in the episode, and with Andre’s baptism taking up so much of the hour, “Be True” feels like two very different shows in a tug-of-war over the same hour of television. Both versions of Empire—the balls-out, nonsensical soap and the more reserved musical family drama—could be awesome shows if executed with gusto and full commitment. “Be True” contains brief glimpses of both, but Empire’s tonal and qualitative inconsistency could be the death of it.

Stray observations:

  • Empire is becoming one of those shows with regular cast members who get treated like recurring guests. Serayah was upped to regular this year, but Roxanne Ford has had considerably more screen time than Tiana has.
  • Ne-Yo isn’t bad. Not that this is an arduous thespian task for him, but some people are terribly wooden even when playing themselves, and he isn’t.
  • I still don’t understand this ridiculous “jack your track” business, or why Lucious would attempt to steal someone’s copyright-protected content. Or, for that matter, why Lyon Dynasty is still recording to DAT cartridges or whatever the hell those are. I know Cookie’s behind the times on technology, but I need somebody to upgrade that operation.
  • Andre was not into that welcome back lap dance, and he rebuffs Rhonda when she tries to initiate sex. Andre is allowed a waning libido, considering what he’s been through lately, but the loss of weird, gross Andre-Rhonda sex scenes is a significant one.
  • I’m not quite clear on where Andre is in terms of treating his condition. He talked about being medicated and having completed treatment, but in “Poor Yorick,” when he talked about receiving messages from God, he sounded, uh, out of sorts, and Rhonda looked awfully concerned.