Critical Condition: Empire

Empire returns early, but later (TV2, 9.35 Tuesday), "bigger and badder than ever," reports the NY DaILY News.

Empire returns early, but later (TV2, 9.35 Tuesday), “bigger and badder than ever,” reports the NY Daily News.

Empire roars out to start its second season, with much of the same hummable audacity that marked its initial run. There is certainly cause for some wariness that an already bursting-at-the-seams drama has become stretched even more haggis-tight, but the three episodes made available to critics remain above the guilty-pleasure fray, with catchy new songs, wacky diamond-encrusted, fur-lined high jinks and, of course, Cookie … Facing high expectations at the start of season two, it’s good to see that Empire can and still wants to go to these places that mark the show as potentially important more than just trashy fun.”

Entertainment_Weekly-1.svg_“The second season of the sensation that conquered television — and proved the commercial power of diversity — opens with a premiere popping with knowing provocation and outrageousness. It’s Empire in excelsis, proudly revving its souped-up storytelling engine and relishing its moment … The next two episodes are less raucous — and less inspired. Empire can be electric when it engages our culture, and poignant when it digs into the minds and hearts of the Lyon clan … But when it’s about only their warring for power over the family business, Empire Entertainment, it’s just solid soap.”

Empire does not specifically ask a viewer to bring the PhD-level of cultural and contextual analysis that so many have heaped upon the series since its sensational debut in January. Indeed, the show is probably best enjoyed for its clothes, music and the dizzying degree of contempt among the members of the Lyon family as they vie for control of Empire, the hip-hop record label founded by the fearsome paterfamilias, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard). But to treat Empire as merely this decade’s best answer to Dynasty is to miss some of its fuller intent as subversive social commentary.”

Variety“Among the danger signs for Empire, even before season one concluded, was whether the media feeding frenzy would become its own kind of trap, leading to stunt casting and musical cameos that risk distracting from the central characters. There is surely some of that in the previewed hours, which include Chris Rock as an old associate of Lucious’ who he encounters in prison (in what can at best be called counter-intuitive casting); Ludacris; and appearances by Al Sharpton and CNN’s Don Lemon at a ‘Free Lucious’ rally that opens the premiere. Marisa Tomei also turns up as a sexually predatory big-money investor, as if (for the purposes of this genre, anyway) there’s any other kind.”

“The drama was all over the map, the pacing unsteady, and the casting hit-and-miss: While Tomei was sly and likable without being given a whole lot to do besides grin knowingly, Rock was, to put it mildly, less than convincing as a criminal whom Lucious supposedly respected and feared on the streets of Philly in the ’90s. Throughout, I got the uncomfortable sense that Empire was on the verge of becoming too enamored with its own swagger, more content to contemplate its power over the audience than be an all-cylinders-firing TV hit.”

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