LOADING ...

Empire reminds us why it’s a shame the title Stop Making Sense was already taken

Joshua Alston Apr 28, 2016. 24 comments
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

The ongoing debate as Empire continues its slide into critical irrelevance is whether the first season of the show was actually good or simply novel, a concept and backdrop fresh enough that the exhilaration masked the show’s legion of weaknesses. Is season two a legitimate decline in quality or has the audience simply discovered the hip hop mogul has no clothes? At this point, it probably doesn’t matter anymore. If Empire is suffering an identity crisis, as television shows often do in their sophomore seasons, said crisis is probably here to stay. The luckiest members of the audience have graduated to the acceptance stage of the grieving process, so at least Empire is at a point where there’s only so much it can disappoint you anymore. It is what it is.

If that sounds like utter indifference, that’s because indifference is as high as my level of investment in this show goes anymore. And I was really, really rooting for Empire to pull its act together after season one, which showed great promise, but started fraying at the seams far too early for my comfort. After that exhausting two-hour season finale, lots of television critics who had spent all year ignoring Empire returned to write about the finale, not because they were into the show, but because it had become enough of a phenomenon to make it a professional obligation. For all the problems I’ve had with this show from the beginning, I was also deeply uncomfortable with the vague, condescending praise Empire got from the critical community just for being commercially successful, as well as the symbol of a new era of diversity in television storytelling. My hope was that the second season would upshift so dramatically that the conversation would be about how good the show is, not how its mere existence is symbolically important irrespective of actual quality.

Well that hasn’t happened, and with only three more episodes left in this season, which is the television equivalent of a commercial airliner crashing into a massive trash barge, it isn’t likely to happen. The only thing to do is sit back and watch as the chasm between what Empire is and what it might have been gets wide enough to be visible from outer space. The show isn’t winning the expectations game, but it has at least lowered them to a consistent level and kept them there. “More Than Kin” is terrible, but not especially terrible or differently terrible compared to anything else Empire has done this season. The good news is that if you like what Empire is doing—and plenty of people do, based on the show’s shockingly consistent viewership—then I suppose it’s as good as it’s ever been. But it’s definitely to the point that detailed, thoughtful criticism of Empire will always miss the forest for the trees. All there is to say is, if you liked Empire before, you’ll probably continue to like it, and “More Than Kin” will do nothing to change that.

I am left genuinely wondering, however, what people value about this show and whether those elements are still present in it. Because from a skeptic’s perspective, “More Than Kin” is the type of episode that suggests the writers have lost their grip on what people liked about Empire to begin with. From the outset, Cookie Lyon was Empire’s greatest asset, but she’s completely lost her mojo this season. Cookie’s resentment of Lucious was initially driving the show and making the character worthwhile. It was impossible not to love Cookie’s brash style and empathize with her dueling desires to repair her family bonds following her release from prison while reclaiming her stake in the company her sacrifice helped to build.

But now, if not for the occasional mention of her time behind bars, Cookie isn’t that person anymore. She’s not a Lyon, she’s a kitten. She’s not a Cookie, she’s a light, delicate madeleine. Instead of trying to take Lucious down, she’s fighting the urge to get back into a relationship with him. And when “More Than Kin” ends, she’s agreeing to share the CEO position with Lucious after he insists she do so. And he has to insist over her modest objections. She’s not wresting control of the company away from the man who treated her like a broken appliance when she was sent away. She’s meekly accepting his offer to share the company with her after first rejecting the overture out of principle. I can’t even remember the last time she barged into a meeting. Where did this person come from?

As the early part of the season ably demonstrated, Empire is at its worst when it tries to emphasize the harmony of the Lyon family while still trying to toss in histrionic twists and jaw-dropping cliffhangers. Doing both of those things at the same time jeopardizes the show’s ability to do either thing with any level of consistency or competence. Nothing bears this out better than the discovery of Leah Walker and the subsequent revelation of her existence to Andre, which in all honesty might be the clunkiest bit of plotting I’ve ever seen on television.

Let’s not even get into how quickly the show went from revealing Leah to tipping Andre off to the truth about his bipolar grandmother. The detrimentally breakneck speed of the storytelling is no longer a conversation worth having. But of all the ways for Andre to find out about Leah, why on Earth would that news come from Harper Scott, a character who appeared out of nowhere and seems to be disappearing just as quickly? I can’t be made to believe there wasn’t a more elegant, more organic way of having Andre stumble onto that information, or at least a path that doesn’t rely on such a transient character. It feels pointless to play what if, but let’s just say Harper revealed the information to any other character than Andre, leaving that person struggling to figure out if and how to reveal it. Even that small tweak could have rescued a story that, in its current form, doesn’t work on any level. At least Andre’s reaction to the news was saved for a future episode, which is what passes for restraint in the world of Empire.

Other than those two major plot points, “More Than Kin” is another episode in which there’s no plot, merely events happening in chronological order. Laura breaks up with Hakeem after finding out about Anika’s pregnancy, then reconciles with him. Anika goes to the hospital. Jamal performs at a small club, reigniting his passion for music or something. Lucious reveals his interest in erotic asphyxiation. Michael, a.k.a. Boring Boyfriend, pops back up for reasons of which I am completely unclear. Freda Gatz was in a scene. Becky was in a couple more. Am I missing anything? Seriously, please tell me what I’m missing about this show.

Stray observations

  • I don’t recall, did Anika actually have a paternity test done or is everyone just taking her word for it because she called their bluff?
  • Man, the ASA campaign process sure is political as hell. Also, it makes no sense, but that’s another conversation.
  • I’m also really unclear about how the stock market works in this universe. Or how corporations work. Or fundamental human behavior.
  • To its credit, this episode did feature one of the biggest laugh lines of the season. Lucious: “The truth is, I wanted to put a human face to mental illness. That’s what ‘Boom Boom Boom Boom’ was all about.” HAHAHAHAHAHA
  • Anika’s mom is back! At least someone understands how to properly hold a grudge around here.
  • Star, Lee Daniels’ other musical drama was picked up for fall. So…we’ll see how that goes.

24 Comments

Other Joshua Alston's posts

Power demolishes its status quo with a stellar, game-changing episode Power demolishes its status quo with a stellar, game-changing episode

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  PowerSeason 3PowerSeason 3"The Right Decision"APowerSeason 3"The Right Decision"AA"The Right Decision"Episode6What does Power look like without Ghost and Angela’s relationship? What does it look like without Felipe Lobos peacocking around, keeping his allies and enemies alike off-balance with deliberately antagonistic sexual advances? These are questions Power would have to play with...

Survivor’s Remorse takes a tragic turn in a heavy finale Survivor’s Remorse takes a tragic turn in a heavy finale

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  Survivor's RemorseSeason 2Survivor's RemorseSeason 2"Starts And Stops"A-Survivor's RemorseSeason 2"Starts And Stops"A-A-"Starts And Stops"Episode10It can feel silly, in this age of No One Is Safe television, to be shocked by the death of a major character on a show. And yet it’s impossible not to be shocked by the final moments...

Survivor’s Remorse: “Homebound” Survivor’s Remorse: “Homebound”

TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  Survivor's RemorseSeason 2Survivor's RemorseSeason 2"Homebound"B+Survivor's RemorseSeason 2"Homebound"B+B+"Homebound"Episode4“Homebound” solves a nagging problem that has plagued Survivor’s Remorse from the outset. Actually, “nagging” might be too harsh a qualifier for said problem, which is the show’s lack of basketball-related content. The focus on the Calloways rather than Cam’s career is among the...

“Car washes” and Lego models: 10 insanely complicated one-shot music videos “Car washes” and Lego models: 10 insanely complicated one-shot music videos

Music videos have been in a state of recession for years now, as downturns in the music industry and the rise of low-cost, high-concept viral videos have supplanted the big-budget event video. But the one-shot music video has endured even as the music video has mostly outgrown its auteur phase. Because elaborate one-shots are so difficult to pull off,...

Suggested posts

We’re becoming people who watch Kirsten Dunst in On Becoming A God In Central Florida We’re becoming people who watch Kirsten Dunst in On Becoming A God In Central Florida

Here’s what’s happening in the world of television for Sunday, August 25. All times are Eastern.Top pickOn Becoming A God In Central Florida (Showtime, 10 p.m, series premiere): Here’s our own Danette Chavez on this Sunday’s pick at the top of the pyramid—a series about, among many other things, the great American pyramid scheme:A riveting black comedy with hairpin...

The Jesse-focused Breaking Bad movie is coming to Netflix in October The Jesse-focused Breaking Bad movie is coming to Netflix in October

The New York Times confirmed tonight that the long-expected Netflix Breaking Bad movie not only has a release date now, but a title: El Camino: A Breaking Bad Story. Per The Times, the film, as previously rumored, will be a sequel story focused on Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman, he of the many-valenced “Bitches!”, as he attempts to find some...

Disney+ thinks of the recappers, will be releasing its shows on a weekly basis Disney+ thinks of the recappers, will be releasing its shows on a weekly basis

In news that presumably saw the internet’s various TV editors reach for the slightly smaller bottles of bourbon for once, the planners behind Disney+ reportedly revealed at this weekend’s D23 expo that, counter to the Netflix model it’s establishing itself in opposition to, the streaming service will not be dropping its various TV shows in massive, binge-worthy dumps. Instead,...

Ewan McGregor confirms that Obi-Wan is back, baby! Ewan McGregor confirms that Obi-Wan is back, baby!

Last week we reported on a rumor that Ewan McGregor—who’s always made it extremely clear that he’d back for more Star Wars stuff pretty much the second anybody asked him—might soon be reprising the role of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi for a new Disney+ show. Said rumor has now been confirmed, courtesy of McGregor himself, who took the stage...

She-Hulk and Moon Knight are getting their own Disney+ shows, too She-Hulk and Moon Knight are getting their own Disney+ shows, too

A big day for Marvel’s B-list today, as the D23 expo has given the company a chance to announce a handful of new shows featuring some of its more beloved second stringers, all of them coming to upcoming streaming service Disney+. In addition to the Ms. Marvel series we reported on earlier today , Kevin Feige confirmed during a...

Good news: WandaVision is going to be exactly as weird as that title always made it sound Good news: WandaVision is going to be exactly as weird as that title always made it sound

Ever since its title—the off-model-while-still-technically-containing-the-names-of-its-stars WandaVision—was announced , we knew that Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany’s little corner of the Disney+ MCU TV universe was going to be kind of strange. (It doesn’t help that one of its main characters is, uh, dead, and without any Endgame time travel shenanigans to help explain him coming back to life.) Now,...

Disney+ somehow cancels its first show before the service has even launched Disney+ somehow cancels its first show before the service has even launched

We’ve known since it was first announced that Disney’s long-in-the-works streaming service, Disney+, was being designed to compete with Netflix. And yet not even we were prepared for the levels the massive entertainment conglomerate would go to beat its rival on every conceivable metric, with Deadline reporting today that Disney has just surpassed Netflix in its recent rush to...

Teen superhero fave Ms. Marvel is getting her own live-action Disney+ show Teen superhero fave Ms. Marvel is getting her own live-action Disney+ show

While much of our collective superhero focus over the last week or so has been on the fight raging between Disney and Sony over everyone’s favorite neighborhood tetherball, Spider-Man, the folks behind Disney+ are continuing to do their damnedest to lure us all in to their slightly more down-scale take on Marvel costumed action. They’re doing an irritatingly good...

Fox News braniacs warn against the dangers of "shooting up" weed Fox News braniacs warn against the dangers of "shooting up" weed

Well, the dipshits over at Fox News have gone and done it again. In the past, the network has picked on gun control activist teenagers , said it’s not really that bad to die in a church shooting, actually, failed to check that “a Navy SEAL” is actually a SEAL before having him on air, made Tucker Carlson a...

Gideon, set a course for sadness: Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford are leaving Legends Of Tomorrow Gideon, set a course for sadness: Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford are leaving Legends Of Tomorrow

Brandon Routh couldn’t quite cut it as Superman, but he found success with another superhero, Ray “The Atom” Palmer (or, as we so affectionately call him, Poor Sweet Ray Ray), who appeared on The CW’s Arrow before going on to serve as one of the anchors for the network’s Legends Of Tomorrow, one of our favorite shows of last...

Language