The star-studded season premiere is just as gaudy and fabulous as expected


Gabourey Sidibe, left, plays Becky on "Empire." (Fox) Fox and Fox

It’s hard for me to give an A-rating to an episode I feel like I’ve seen before.

“Empire,” just as gold-plated, star-studded and superfluous as it always is, felt like a rehashing of the same drama from last season, only this time less organically. It felt overwrought with unnecessary guest appearances and — GASP! — yet another murder. “Empire” has been a history-maker, record-breaking hit TV phenomenon, and that success is going to be the mark of a truly iconic show.

Those things aside, “Empire” has me hooked.

For a brief and minimally spoiled recap, here’s how the episode went down: The hostile takeover plot is resolved quickly, Jamal has become Lucious reincarnate and in the first 15 minutes we meet guest stars Andre Leon Talley, Don Lemon and Al Sharpton playing themselves at the “Free Lucious” concert. Nothing too shocking, nothing too plot-twisty. The thing about “Empire,” though, is the storylines are not as crucial as the actors who play them every week.

The cast is outstanding. From everyone’s favorite leading lady, queen of the divas and our sass supreme, Taraji P. Henson, down to Gabourey Sidibe in the supporting role of Jamal’s personal assistant, there is a certain biting wit to nearly every character on the show.

The most surprising new addition to the premiere was Chris Rock playing drug kingpin Frank Gathers. If you recall, this is the same man Cookie ratted out in exchange for her freedom last season. Frank is supposed to be revered, respected both in the streets and in the prison. But it seems to me the writers and the folks who cast the show missed one crucial detail: Nobody is scared of Chris Rock.

Rock as Gathers was less-than-believable at best, but it was fun to watch him try.

Someone characterized a flaw in this season as “having no one left to root for,” and I think that’s an accurate description. Gone are the days of brilliant and sensitive Jamal vying for his father’s approval and relishing in his mother’s love. Instead, he’s a blood-thirsty young executive with little room for apology and no time to focus on the music that made us fall in love with him. There is no softness anywhere in “Empire,” and it’s hard to watch an hour’s worth of dirty deals and conniving artists without the levity Jamal’s inherent goodness used to provide.

At its core, though, “Empire” starts critical conversations. And for that reason alone it can’t be ignored as essential pop culture. It was the most tweeted-about hour of scripted television in history, clocking in at 1.3 million tweets, and the content of the episode included vital statistics and context on mass incarceration and homophobia in the black community, which is one key to the show’s entire first season. “Empire” gets people talking, and while often firmly couched in camp, more often than not, it manages to cut through the noise and deliver something invaluable to the media landscape.

“Empire” has quite the task ahead of it this season. Living up to the hype set forth by season one’s success is nearly impossible, but if the season premiere is any indication, the “Empire” team is going to do its best to make it happen.

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