Here it comes. Empire is riding an almost unprecedented high of ratings and critical praise. So here comes T Lo to pee in the punch bowl.
But first: Yes, Lola is ridiculously cute and the scene with Hakeem and Jamal singing her to sleep was a heartwarming crowd-pleaser of a moment. And this was a great episode of television, full of high drama, heartwarming moments, genuine tension and fear, and of course, musical numbers galore.
Now, with THAT out of the way…
We think this show, as it’s currently produced, is almost certainly unsustainable for more than a season or two. We’re only ten episodes into this thing and the show has burnt off so many plotlines that we find it hard to believe the quality can be sustained for much longer. We’re reminded of Revenge, a soapy melodrama that came out of the gate incredibly strong and with a great hook, which then burned through plots like kindling and wound up more or less fizzling out.
Even an episode like this one, which was excellent in so many ways, left us a little dizzy, not so much with the plot twists, but in the ways several storylines either wrapped up unexpectedly or perhaps a bit too quickly or the ways in which characters made sudden shifts out of nowhere. The episode opened with Lucious mentioning that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Cookie, a revelation that should have at least had some sort of buildup. Sure, the still-smoldering feelings the two have for each other has been a central aspect of the series since the beginning, and the stage had been set for this kind of emotional turnaround with Anika’s departure from the inner circle, but it’s kind of important for the audience to actually see these emotional developments play out instead of simply announcing them out of left field. While it’s true that Lucious’s sudden “love” for Cookie was purely self-centered (as Cookie GLORIOUSLY pointed out to him before sashaying away with a smirk), which explains the abruptness of it, it was still an awkward and tonally odd shift to open the episode with him declaring that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. We all knew it wasn’t as sincere as Lucious wanted it to appear, but a shift like that would have benefitted from just a little breathing space.
Similarly, the reveal that Lucious, not Jamal, is Lola’s father just didn’t land as well as it should have because the story had almost no time to develop. And by the end of the episode, it had all been wrapped up, with Lola shipped out until the next time they need a heart-tugging scene. In fact, we weren’t even sure if Lucious was telling the truth at first because there’d been virtually no emotional setup for this except for the maneuvering he was doing to keep Lola in his custody – and even then, he’s such a straight-up villain in so many respects that it was easy to assume this was just another in a long line of schemes or lies. There was never an opportunity to even consider the idea. It just came out of left field and came to a conclusion ten minutes later.
Speaking of which, it’s au revoir to Miss Naomi Campbell all of a sudden, in a narrative move that reeked of cutting the dead weight from the story. And the funny thing is, she went out so well that we kinda regretted seeing her go. We couldn’t stop laughing during the “photo shoot” scene, where she pretended to be a photographer by caressing a camera and making model faces while flashes went off. That’s some high camp shit and we were entirely there for it, just as we sat up a little straighter in our seats when she went toe-to-toe with Lucious. She’ll never win an acting award, but her stature and her reputation make her particularly well-suited to playing soap opera bitches. In all seriousness, we were actually a little disappointed she didn’t throw a phone at his head before her exit.
And can we all just admit that the Rhonda we met last night was a totally rewritten version of the campy, bib-wearing character we were introduced to? Not that we’re complaining. We like this new Rhonda quite a bit, but you’ll never convince us this was anything but a rapidly deployed character rehab in order to make her fit more seamlessly into the cast and the family. Especially now that Andre – and let’s take a moment here to enjoy the camp silliness – has a “music therapist” played by Jennifer Hudson whose therapy consists of belting out songs and shoving her boobs in his face while asking him to pray with her. You just can’t buy that kind of entertainment value.
And here’s Jamal’s emotional journey so far: Doesn’t want anything to do with his father or with the idea of being a star. Happy to be out and proud with his boyfriend, living in the apartment that his father pays for. Then, he decided he does want to be a star and he moves out of the apartment his father pays for, in an act of defiance, with the promise that he will not hide his sexuality or kowtow to his father’s prejudice. Then he stays in the closet and gets dumped by his boyfriend. Then he finds out he’s a father. Then he meets and starts dating a second guy. Then he comes out. Then his boyfriend says he didn’t sign up for raising a kid. Then he finds out the kid isn’t his.
That’s in TEN EPISODES. We’re not advocating for slow or drawn out stories, but that’s like two whole seasons’ worth of character material.
We’ve made this comparison before, and after an episode like this one, it’s even more clear to us: this show suffers from Downton Abbey-style plotting and pacing deficiencies that are camouflaged with a little dazzle. Okay, a LOT of dazzle. And while we remain as dazzled as we ever were, we wouldn’t mind a little more effort put into the pacing of the story and allowing certain subplots to play out instead of constantly bombarding us with rapid story shifts and abrupt conclusions. We understand that this was the first episode shot after the pilot had aired to blockbuster ratings and critical praise. If that’s the case, it may be likely that the reason for the head-spinning story changes was because the show is doing a little course-correcting for the long term now that they know they actually have a long term. The characters, the story, and even the audience needs a little breathing room.
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[Photo Credit: FOX]
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