This Is What Happens When Empire’s Ta’Rhonda Jones Is Your Red Carpet Reporter …

23 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Empire’ returns tonight; here’s a look back, and tidbits of things to come in Season 2.

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.Empire (9 p.m., Fox) – Season 2 opens three months after Lucious’ arrest, and he’s trying to run Empire Entertainment from inside federal lockup.

Fox’s deliriously melodramatic hit show “Empire” returns for a second season Wednesday night, and it’s a shiny, deliberately blingy example of how the trashiest (and often morally bereft) shows can also be the shows that have the most to say. “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. 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. 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.

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. Nature’s Miracle Orphans (8 p.m., UNC-TV) – A Nature special about rescue center caregivers in Australia and Costa Rica who help wild baby orphans, including a koala bear, a tiny wallaby and a three-toed baby sloth battling pneumonia.

View Archive 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. 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. 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. 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. For all its flash and dazzle, “Empire” could also be described as a show composed of scenes that have Cookie in them and scenes that do not; nevertheless, Howard manages to sustain his menacing presence from behind bars.

This season’s first episode is rife with cameos, mirroring the show’s main thrust: Everyone wants a piece of “Empire,” both in real celebrity life and across the blurred lines of fiction. 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. Counter to her best interests, the opportunistic Cookie is campaigning for Lucious’s release, staging a massive Central Park concert and rally (hashtag: #FreeLucious), where, in short order, she deals with the Rev.

Al Sharpton (who says he can’t officially be seen helping Lucious beat the rap), Vogue magazine’s Andre Leon Talley (who throws a little shade at Cookie’s outfit, “last season’s” Gucci), and CNN’s Don Lemon, who, well, the less said the better. 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. To portray her ex-husband’s arrest as just one more shameful example of the nation’s black incarceration rate, Cookie dons a gorilla costume and has herself lowered to the concert stage in a cage, even though, as Hakeem points out to his mother, Lucious happens to be guilty of the murder with which he’s charged. 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.

In a matter of minutes, “Empire” rightfully reclaims its role as an au-courant launching pad for cultural analysis, from Black Twitter on up to the loftiest tenure track. 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 only balm to this acrimony is “Empire’s” obligation to deliver the beat, with musical numbers (produced by Timbaland, Ne-Yo and an array of other talent) that offer a sort of “Glee”-like respite to the snitchin’ and slappin’.

Without the music and gloriously luxe atmosphere, this would all get pretty old, pretty quick. “Empire’s” one and only problem remains the ethical hollowness of its characters — even the “good” ones are prone to cruelty. 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.

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