‘Empire’ Showrunner Teases Cookie’s New Love Interest, Lyon Sons’ ‘Warring …

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Empire’ producer Ilene Chaiken promises moments that will make fans rise from their seats.

Well, it’s finally “Empire” Wednesday, and the show returns for its second season. Like the rest of us, you’ve probably been impatiently counting down the days until everyone’s favorite musical melodrama – , duh – finally returns on Wednesday.Cast Pictured L-R: (Bottom Row) Bryshere Gray as Hakeem Lyon, Jussie Smollett as Jamal Lyon, Trai Byers as Andre Lyon (Middle Row) Grace Gealey as Anika, Kaitlin Doubleday as Rhonda Lyon (Back Row) Gabourey Sidibe as Becky, Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon, Taraji P. After its full-charged ratings build last season, how the audience receives the show in its sophomore season will likely be a central point of interest. Henson as Cookie Lyon and Ta’Rhonda Jones as Porsha on EMPIRE Season 2 premiering Wednesday, September 23 (9:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX. (Fox/James Dimmock) Because ‘Empire’ accomplished a nearly impossible feat in its first season — growing its audience each week – the show is probably facing a bigger challenge against the sophomore slump than any show to date.

Henson’s portrayal of Cookie Lyon, the formerly incarcerated wife of presently incarcerated music mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) — it occupied the public conversation and media interest in the way that broadcast-network dramas rarely do now. Its Season 1 finale brought in 17 million viewers at a time when it seemed the death knell had been rung on broadcast television bringing in such numbers. It was the No. 1 broadcast series, with a hit soundtrack album for related good measure, and demonstrated that a series in which nearly every major character is a person of color can cut across demographics and kill in the ratings. After all Empire packed a whole lot of drama into its very first season – we’re talking musical numbers, backstabbing, seduction, murder, attempted murder and jail time … to name just a few – and it’s hard to imaging what creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong will come up with that can top all of that insanity. The beauty of “Empire,” built-in from the beginning, and what makes it so widely appealing, is that it is total pulp in a really nice binding: “Dynasty” played as “King Lear.” It’s aggressively melodramatic, but in a way that doesn’t insult the intelligence — it is outlandish, but not ridiculous, and not the sort of series you would need to qualify as a guilty pleasure.

Marisa Tomei, Chris Rock, Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges, Pitbull, Andre Royo and Sway are just some of the high-profile names attached to the second season. It’s solidly made to be exactly what it is. “Lear” was specifically on Danny Strong’s mind when he pitched “Empire” to co-creator Lee Daniels. (And the series still borrows titles from the text of Shakespeare plays.) But Cookie and Lucious are less Shakespearean figures than they are Olympian — a wrangling Zeus and Hera who share children and jockey for power and whose arguments manifest as fires and floods and earthquakes in the precincts below. Case in point: The show’s pilot, which ended with Lucious shooting and killing Cookie’s cousin, Bunkie (Antoine McKay ), after the latter tried to blackmail him because Lucious had ordered him to spy on the newly freed Cookie. The premiere episode is entitled ‘The Devils Are Here,’ and it takes place three months after the finale, and Lucious Lyon, ever the bull-headed one, is trying to run his music company from prison. I don’t know what to attribute it to, but what I felt take shape was this incredible audience engagement and this voracious appetite for the show and a great sense of ownership of the audience.

Lee Daniels, Danny Strong and their writing team left viewers with a plate full of sticky situations in the Season One finale, which went a little something like this: Lucious is in jail for murdering Cookie’s cousin, Bunky, and he blames Cookie for his arrest. Gray) and business-school son Andre (Trai Byers), is also trying to gain control of the label with an infusion of outside cash. (Marisa Tomei guest stars as the outside infuser.) Singing son Jamal (Jussie Smollett), whose homosexuality drove a wedge between them in Season 1, is currently aligned with his father. If you can’t keep track of who’s siding with whom at any moment, who’s in, who’s out, who’s up, who’s down, it hardly matters because it’s going to change by the end of the hour, anyway. Still, nobody was expecting that “something big” to be a boardroom breakdown that resulting in Andre destroying the room, screaming at his wife and accusing his father of murder. As much as they dislike each other, Cookie and Anika realize they must unite in order to take control of Empire Records; the company’s stock plummets as word of Lucious’ arrest circulates.

But for all the switchback plotting, the sudden revelations that bring some earlier plot or plotline to naught, the show never feels too obviously manipulative or out of control. Both Hakeem (Bryshere “Yazz” Gray) and Anika (Grace Gealey) had plenty of reasons to be upset with Lucious: Anika was mad at him cheating on her with Cookie and Hakeem had been battling his father over him sending his older girlfriend, Camilla (Naomi Campbell) away. Andre feels that religion – and Michelle – may be just what he needs to get a handle on his life and control of his bipolarity; Lucious’ right-hand man, Vernon, visits Andre to call a truce. This is in part because of the restrained way it’s shot and acted; things get crazy for the space of a musical number, or a nervous breakdown, but mostly it purrs, even when violence is near.

There is good work up and down the cast (the smaller roles do much to set the tone, and to relieve the tension), but it remains Henson’s show in the end, both on the page and in the performing. What better way to get back at your scheming, homophobic dad than by coming out on stage in front of a room full of industry executives, all while using a song that your father himself wrote? And let’s not forget the huge skeleton in Cookie’s closet which has yet to rattle: putting a (successful) hit out on her former nemesis, Frank, only to discover it was a case of mistaken identity. A recent episode of the new show ‘Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter’ focused on Drama Showrunners and guests included Lee Daniels along with showrunners from ‘The Good Wife,’ ‘Homeland,’ ‘House of Cards,’ ‘The Leftovers’ and ‘The Affair.’ The group discussed in detail their creative process, and diversity in the writers’ room.

Whatever else happens around her, however much the action wanders over to Lucious or to her now-competitive, now-cooperative sons, everything is most interesting as it relates to Cookie, because Henson makes her so vivid, so funny, so formidable, and so touching, and it’s a delight to watch her work. And as if that weren’t shocking enough, the revelation took place while the entire Lyon family was being held at gunpoint by Olivia’s ex-boyfriend Reg (Jerod Haynes). Filmography: The Butler (2013), The Paperboy (2012), Precious (2009), Tennessee (2008), Shadowboxer (2005), The Woodsman (2004), Monster’s Ball (2001) Casting approach: “It’s instinctive and intuitive. Just when you thought that they couldn’t pack any more twists into the season finale (keep in mind that this was after Cookie attempted to kill Lucious after finding out he killed Bunkie, Lucious let her know that he knew she tried, everyone found out that Lucious didn’t have ALS after all, Jamal turned against Cookie, Jamal was named CEO, Cookie, Anika, Andre and Hakeem teamed up to take Lucious down and Andre accidentally killed the key witness in a potential trial against Lucious), Empire decided to go out with one last shocked: Someone told the FBI that Lucious killed Bunkie. This week, Lee Daniels was slapped with a defamation lawsuit by actor Sean Penn, stemming from comments Daniels made comparing Penn to Terrence Howard, who’s currently in the midst of a domestic abuse lawsuit.

The most important thing to me is that when you do a show like this, you know intuitively whether you’re doing it right, and you just don’t stop until it’s there. I got a lot of flak for portraying Lucious and Cookie as heroes for being drug dealers, and [what that means for] the representation of the African American. Sometimes we’ll aim for a moment and circle back and say, “You know what, let’s not do that here because that’s really not what would happen.” It’s happened several times in breaking second-season stories. We broke a story in the room in which Andre, while he was having his bipolar break, which was pretty spectacular, he was pursuing someone we thought was his adversary, and he runs him over with a car.

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