Instant success in television can be a wonderful thing. It creates stars, generates conversation, inspires imitators, and is just fun to see – particularly in an age like this one where almost nothing is a big hit right out of the gate, particularly on the broadcast networks. But instant success in any era can have unfortunate repercussions. Actors can fall prey to what former Lakers coach Pat Riley liked to call “the disease of more,” and are suddenly insisting on more money, more screen time, even better coverage at a cast photo shoot. But even if the stars remain level-headed about where they are and how they got there, breakout hit shows can suffer from the disease of more in a different way, as they try to double down on everything the audience loved at the start – More plot twists! More guest stars! – even as it throws the whole enterprise out of balance and transforms it from phenomenon to forgettable. (Take, for instance, “Glee.”)
Last winter, “Empire” became the biggest broadcast network hit in a decade. It did something that just doesn't happen – not in this era or any other – by growing its audience every single week it was on the air. It was a show the audience was excited for before it debuted, and one where word-of-mouth only grew stronger and stronger. It made hits out of its manufactured songs like “Drip Drop,” and in Taraji P. Henson's Cookie, it created a soap diva for the ages: a woman every bit as imperial and memorably-styled as the best soap villainesses of the '80s and '90s, but one who was actually this show's sensible and sympathetic heroine. It was trashy, it was silly, and it was a whole lot of fun.
It was also burning through story at two or three times the speed of a normal primetime soap, and the two-part finale was near-complete gibberish as it tried to stuff a season or two's worth of plot twists and changes in allegiance into a couple of hours. While most of the season had been produced before the show debuted, these episodes had been crafted in the wake of “Empire” being The Show That Saved FOX, and it was hard not to imagine the creative team of Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, and Ilene Chaiken overcompensating in an attempt to live up to the insane hype.
Couple that finale with this terrific Hollywood Reporter piece about all the behind-the-scenes lunacy that went on during the hiatus – including an argument between Daniels and FOX about whether to make a new gangster character, played by Chris Rock, into a cannibal – and it wasn't hard to imagine “Empire” crumbling under the weight of its success at the start of the season 2, which debuts tomorrow night at 9.
Instead, the three episodes FOX sent to critics are impressively well-balanced, not to mention coherent by “Empire” standards.” They understand that as much as the world loves Henson, Cookie is a sometimes food, and she isn't thrust into every possible scene (and talked about constantly when she's absent). They don't overdo it on the musical performances – though it's more amusing than ever how every single song, even ones performed at an audition, or recorded under the worst possible conditions, sounds mixed and polished to be played on the radio immediately – don't rush to get Terrence Howard's Lucious out of jail, and manage to toggle back and forth between the different members of the Lyon family without ever seeming like they're dwelling too much on any one of them. (Okay, maybe Trai Byer's Andre, but even there, the new season is making an effort to make him more involved and explain why Lucious is so reluctant to hand the keys to the kingdom to the best qualified of his three sons.)
It's not a restrained or subtle version of the show – when Marisa Tomei is introduced as a powerful financier who might aide Cookie, Andre, and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray) in their hostile takeover attempt, of course her last name is Whiteman – but who would want that? “Empire” is as big and loud and vibrant as Cookie's wardrobe – which in an early scene includes a gorilla costume, as she tries to cynically exploit the Black Lives Matter movement to get her monstrous but lucrative ex-husband out of jail – and it has to be for the ridiculousness of the plotting to work. There are serious subjects at play here, and moments where we're meant to take the inner turmoil of a character like Jamal (Jussie Smollett) seriously, but the show has to be exaggerated to function, so long as it doesn't become too exaggerated.
Fortunately, that isn't the case here. The first episode in particular has the swagger of a series that knows it's a blockbuster, but not the complacency of one. Guest stars like Rock and Tomei provide spice without feeling like distractions, and all the core relationships are maintained well, like the jealousy that keeps undercutting Hakeem and Jamal's tight sibling bond. And while it's not wall-to-wall Cookie, her scenes are always a delight, whether she's channeling Debbie Allen from “Fame” while coaching a new act or finding new and hilarious ways to display her contempt for Grace Gealey's Anika (aka Boo Boo Kitty).
At one point, Cookie is pondering what to call a new venture, and hears a word that pleases her: “'Dynasty.' That's a dope name.” That's the kind of self-aware joke a show that's been as good and successful as “Empire” can get away with, so long as it doesn't do too many of them. Based on all the backstage craziness and the usual creative trajectory for this kind of show, and the fact that the writers have to fill 18 episodes worth of story versus 12 last season, I wouldn't expect “Empire” to stay mighty forever. But it's in much better shape in its return than I hoped (or feared) it would be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org