Xem Says… “Empire” Isn’t Quite Ready For A Spin-Off Series Just Yet

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After watching the first 2 episodes of FOX’S hit series, Empire & the 2nd experiencing a ratings dip of 3+ million viewers, is the show also losing your interest?

I AM AN EMPIRE FAN and have been a loyal viewer since January 2015. However, I am one of the series supporters who was only initially pulled in by the Jamal Lyon storyline, as well as Cookie’s sass & dominating on-screen personality. Terrence Howard also immediately captivated my attention as Lucious Lyon. I don’t think any other actor could have been hired to effectively pull off his intense, alpha male role.

Meanwhile, some people are arguing that the series was never really “good” and we simply rallied around it because of the excitement & thrill of seeing a predominately black cast framed in a primetime drama slot. Just as with ABC’s Scandal, people seemingly jumped on the “Empire” bandwagon via social media in an effort to not be left out of what quickly became a television phenomenon. Others are presently stating that the recent focus on celebrity guest stars and gay themed plot lines are spoiling this second season. There’s already talk of a spin-off series in development, but IT MAY BE TOO SOON.

I will admit that I don’t hear the same level of post-show chatter or see the onslaught of online commentary that followed the pilot season episodes. And I will also admit that I am having a difficult time identifying with the riff between Jamal & Cookie, while trying to enjoy the particular songs/rigid musical numbers that have been performed thus far. I have also experienced difficulty over the past two weeks in connecting to the lack of depth or growth in central characters between season 1 and the most recent episodes.

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I do realize that we still have 16 shows to view this season, but I’d like to see MORE FOCUS placed on Andre’s battle with his mental illness. I think it’s very impactful socially for the series to focus on how Andre’s mental health affects the Lyons family short & longterm — especially since black people are just recently beginning to openly discuss the issue. It makes perfect sense right now that Andre would be experiencing increased levels of anxiety and out-of-control rage now that he has lost hold of one of the more important aspects of his livelihood — his job. Andre’s character isn’t being given the screen time to react or reveal the inner workings of his present, mental state. We hear Andre express his frustration and share his dismay before Cookie. However, the intensity of the internal warfare that would be boiling inside of someone who endures mental instability isn’t present AT ALL.

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I also feel that we don’t know who Rhonda or Becky truly ARE, aside from their very secondary roles as Empire Records employees. I’m interested in what makes these two ladies tick internally. We’ve already seen them both be FUNNY. That’s no longer enough now that the second season has launched. What are Becky & Rhonda’s relationships with their loved ones? Are either of them involved in romantic relationships? What are their creative passions & personal fears? How do they feel about themselves as women in the world and do they have dreams/goals that extend beyond their temporary assistant jobs? As of right now, neither character appears to be significant to the overall series, as they both simply provide occasional comic relief.

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Becky’s character is displayed as nothing more than the girl in high school who has the gay best friend and is liked by everyone because she’s “so nice”. I want to see and know more about each woman outside of the Empire offices.

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In comparison, Hakeem’s character is becoming less and less significant to the structure of the Lyon’s family. We know very little about the internal battles that are truly plaguing Hakeem as a young, black man living in America. He should have been standing alongside Cookie on stage during the second season opener and chanting, “Black Lives Matter”. If the show wants to deal with real, social issues, Hakeem is then the perfect character to target the epidemic of black men losing their lives carelessly on American soil. The show very lightly taps into Hakeem’s passion as an artist or his personal feelings of being neglected by mom AND dad in the past. We see Hakeem catch attitudes, TALK about his music and make other little snide remarks, but the pain he obviously carries around each day isn’t presented on-screen in such a way that the audience can truly empathize with him.

Every time we see Hakeem, he is ALWAYS paired alongside one of his brothers or one of the other supporting characters. He is rarely framed ALONE, and that is partially why viewers dont know who HE IS beyond the “rapper” and youngest sibling. Strong, well developed characters have to be displayed privately — alone with their emotions and able to successfully portray them in silence in order to reveal the layers that an audience will care about. I am thinking about the pivotal scene in the first season of “How To Get Away With Murder” when Annalise is home alone, sitting in the mirror, peeling off her wig, removing her makeup and taking off her lashes after a grueling day of being “seen as” strong and seemingly having it all together. 

I can’t truly say who Hakeem is beyond his character description. We have not been privy to layers of his emotional being or even his reactions to other characters that aren’t immediately seen as being defensive.

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I was also very taken aback to see Jamal romantically paired again alongside Michael. While I certainly understand that couples split and get back together all of the time, it would have been great for the audience to witness the very challenging process that couples endure between their first breakup and that moment where they decide to rekindle the flame. I don’t personally believe that Michael is strong or passionate enough to exist as Jamal’s central love interest.

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Ryan Morgan (the filmmaker from season 1), was closer to the TYPE of guy that someone like Jamal would logically choose and organically connect to. Ryan pushed Jamal professionally, encouraged him personally and aggressively forced Jamal to see certain aspects of his life. It was Ryan’s presence in Jamal’s life that planted the seed of change in how Jamal’s character presented himself publicly for the remainder of the first season. Ryan’s character and that particular storyline should have never been so prematurely dismissed.

I do, however, appreciate that Jamal’s sexuality has been bumped to the backseat of his now leadership role amongst the “Empire” ranks. I don’t necessarily believe that a son would ever betray his nurturing mother to side with his physically and verbally abusive father, but I love the way Jamal’s new position has brought out the more aggressive sides of his personality. I think Lee Daniels realized very early on that Jussie Smollett had become the “fan favorite” amongst the brothers. It’s also obvious based on social media postings that Jussie & Lee have grown close off screen as well. It was a great choice creatively and business-wise to increase the role responsibilities of Jamal Lyon this season.

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As for Cookie and Lucious, their battle against one another to frame EMPIRE RECORDS against DYNASTY RECORDS will carry the interest of the viewers throughout the next 16 episodes. I think watching Cookie build her business from the ground up will allow the audience to experience firsthand the inner workings of Cookie’s mental savvy — the know how that helped her secure the $400,000.00 Lucious used to ignite Empire.

Meeting Cookie’s older sister in episode 8, to be played by Vivica Fox, and potentially meeting her mother as well, will definitely add layers to her character. I am confident that behind the scenes, Taraji is pushing to give Cookie depth beneath the catchy one-liners, sharp attitude and ongoing feud with Anika. It’s undeniable that Cookie is the focus of the Empire series, even if her character wasn’t intended to lead the cast. Viewers tune in each week to be entertained by her antics. However, the series cannot stand on another season filled with surface behavior and quick, sharp dialogue spewed from Cookie’s mouth. This second season will hopefully reveal all of the internal strength, passion and intelligence that allowed Cookie to transition between drug lord 17 years ago to now being an aspiring, legit businesswoman.

Empire hasn’t lost my interest, but I am hoping that before a spin off season goes into development, each of the central characters are given a fair chance to grow. I do feel that it is way too soon in the fruition of this series, for the Lyon’s family to be sharing such increased screen time with random, celebrity guest stars. The inclusion of celeb cameos could work if these celebrities were playing themselves and appearing in diminished roles, much like they did during the final 5-10 minutes each week of FOX’s “New York Undercover” series during the early 1990’s. It honestly makes no sense to include these singers, comedian’s and reality stars in roles that solely seem to have been created JUST TO make room for them. I applaud Lee Daniels for using his favor and media opportunities to create positions for our black stars, but I’d prefer to first feel connected to the characters who matter to the core of the series before being bombarded by guest stars whose roles are only good for pieces of one or two episodes.

I am looking forward to watching this second season pan out. Despite any of our personal or collective opinions about the showcase, I think we all can relate to the dynamics of family and loyalty, the themes of jealousy and competition, as well as the universal language of music that are all combined to make EMPIRE the hit series that it is – still 14 million viewers STRONG.