Empire should be a great soap opera in its fourth season. By now, Grey’s Anatomy had delicious drama to mine from Dr. Burke leaving Cristina Yang at the altar. By now, Dallas revealed who shot J.R. By now, Desperate Housewives introduced a mysterious lady played by Dana Delaney. I could continue naming great fourth seasons of long-running dramas, because once you’ve reached that milestone, the show should run itself. Unfortunately for Empire, it has never really gotten over the problem it has had since its debut: the existence of Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon. And because of that, its fourth season begins with an unimpressive whimper.
During its first season, Empire was an inspired contemporary take on The Lion in the Winter revolving around Lucious fearing his impending death and deciding which of his three sons he would bequeath his music empire to. Complicating matters was the sudden return of his ex-wife, Cookie Lyon, a ferocious femme fatale played by Taraji P. Henson. If this show had aspirations of being a modern-day Dynasty, it couldn’t have done better than introducing their Alexis Carrington in the premiere and centering the series around Cookie. To wit, she already had her Krystle Carrington in Grace Gealey’s Anika Calhoun, only this Krystle wasn’t sweet and saccharine—she could scheme as much as Cookie.
The key to a great soap is rivalries, and if you milked Cookie and Anika fighting for Lucious’ love, then it could’ve soared (especially if they continued doing it after his death). But the series’ first season finale reversed Lucious’ death—saying it was all a mistake—and then let him live on for multiple seasons, adding absolutely nothing to the show. I get that Empire believes the patriarch of the family, the one who started their hip-hop dynasty from the streets, is integral to the show. But he’s not and continues to take too much time away from other characters.
This season, Hakeem is once again worried about his newborn daughter. Jamal is dealing with his sobriety. Andre is on the verge of murdering everyone. We’ve been there done that as far as these storylines go, but there’s no time to add new depths because we have to check in on Lucious who almost died in an explosion last season and now has amnesia. Much like the second season picked up with Lucious in prison, this new season promises to spend way too much time with a character who’s a cancer to the show. Lucious is wholly unlikable and yet every character must eventually return to liking him because he must always win.
Even putting aside the fact that Terrence Howard, who has a history of alleged domestic abuse and sexual harassment, seems to have his history swept under the rug with each subsequent season of Empire, it’s equally odd that a soap opera—which largely appeals to women and gay men, if we’re keeping it real—keeps putting a character front and center who’s misogynistic, homophobic, and the embodiment of toxic masculinity. Where are Cookie’s fantastic storylines? Where are the other female characters who should be dominating Empire instead of showing up for listless guest appearances, like Demi Moore, Nia Long, and Eva Longoria? Why is Jamal, an openly gay black character, constantly pouting and going in and out of rehab instead of doing anything that might be considered entertaining to watch?
It’s odd that Empire is now run by Ilene Chaiken, who created The L Word, because the show is—for the most part—completely devoid of any semblance of female empowerment. When Porsha notices Cookie sitting at her desk “looking like a queen,” it’s just a reminder that Cookie flourishes when Lucious isn’t front and center, and always languishes when it’s time for him to be the main focus.
Of course the ratings remain good, if not as massive as they were in its first season, so there’s little chance that Empire will cast off its Lucious shackles. If anything, his injuries from the blast will propel him to even more stories that will make this monster of a character sympathetic. The show remains watchable, but feels like a chore.
In the shadows this season lurks powerhouse actress Phylicia Rashad, who’s plotting revenge against the Lyon family. If only she’d kill off Lucious to put the family—and the audience—out of its misery.