empire season 2

*It’s too soon to tell if Fox’s Empire will fall victim to the dreaded sophomore slump, but let’s just say that even though the first three episodes aren’t exactly chockfull of the stuff that would earn last season’s breakout hit a passing grade, it’s likely that Empire will stay atop everyone’s guilty pleasure TV list when it returns Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET with 18 episodes in Season 2.

But, let’s keep it real. Despite all of the hype, Empire is far from being the best show on network TV. It didn’t get snubbed by Emmy voters, it’s just not Emmy worthy. Gimmicks, clever casting, form-fitting haute couture, over-the-top scenarios and consistent odes to all of those addictive soaps of the past century have propelled Empire to the top of the ratings. Plus, it has put such a glamorous spin on the oft-maligned world of hip hop that we want to see how it’s all going to go down from week-to-week.

That is why we can’t stop watching.

Part of the credit for the Empire phenomenon has to go to Oscar-nominated lead actors Terrence Howard (Lucious Lyon) and Taraji P. Henson (Cookie Lyon). Both are able to rise above the occasionally abhorrent dialogue they’re paid to deliver and remind us that at their core, they are legitimate thespians perfectly capable of carrying a primetime show. Lucious, the ex-gangsta rapper who has transformed himself into a modern-day Berry Gordy with street cred, is so bad that he can beat a terminal illness.

Yep, even God can’t kill him.

Conversely, Cookie is the quintessential Gucci-loving ghetto fab diva who is really more complex than badass. She just rarely lets her guard down. Last time she did that she ended up in an orange jumpsuit just like Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington. Henson, who received an Emmy nomination for best actress in a drama, was fun to watch during the first season so let’s hope the writers don’t overdo it and give us a monstrous Cookie 2.0 on steroids.

There’s also last season’s breakout star Jussie Smollett. He plays Jamal, the middle son. He’s sweet, gay yearning to be accepted by his father. He’s the second coming of Dynasty’s Steven Carrington. Smollett’s nuanced performances add some balance to all of the scripted madness eating up the scenery around him. He’s gotten to the point that when he enters the room, we welcome the relief.

The same could be said of Trai Byers (Andre), but his talent is largely being wasted as more focus is put upon Bryshere “Yazz” Gray (Hakeem), the baby rapper struggling to find his role in the Empire as the rich kid who wants so badly to connect to the ‘hood he’s just seen from the back window of his limo. Unfortunately, Gray’s acting skills haven’t caught up with his musical abilities, so Hakeem just comes off as a bratty oversexed shirtless wannabe in most scenes. Producers would be smart to play up this character’s vulnerabilities more.

Lastly, there’s Oscar-nominee Gabourey Sidibe, the hidden gem in this cast. Her role as an executive assistant at Empire is small, but significant. Just when you think the show has made a left turn into the abyss, she’ll say something that will put us right back on the main drag. She’s simply precious.

That’s the genius of Lee Daniels, Empire’s co-creator (with Danny Strong) and co-executive producer. He’s created a show with rich black folks as the protagonists in an era when the rallying cry is “Black Lives Matter.” Empire is true escapism. We can tune in at 9 and put the 6 p.m. breaking news of another unarmed black man killed by an overzealous white cop on hold.

Additionally, the creative force behind Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Monster’s Ball, has wisely supplemented this series with a series of high profile guest stars that will keep the existing fan base happy and maybe pull in a few haters as well.

Ludacris (L) and Terrence Howard on the set of "Empire" Season 2

Ludacris (L) and Terrence Howard on the set of “Empire” Season 2

In the first episode, Lucious is doing his part to promote Orange is the New Black as he makes a series of improbable moves behind bars proving that you can take the OG outta the ‘hood but you can’t take the ‘hood outta the OG. If you remember from last season, Big Lu, who miraculously beat ALS, couldn’t beat the murder rap–yet. Joining him in the joint is Chris Rock, who is guesting as an old business associate with beef. There’s only one problem with this star turn, it’s almost impossible to buy Rock—a brilliant comedian but marginal actor—as a convicted felon.

What, Drake wasn’t available?

Just joking.

It’s much easier, however, to buy Ludacris, as a prison guard; and Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei as a bisexual investor who creates even more dissension within the Lyon crew.

marissa tomei empire

Marisa Tomei Joins ‘Empire’ as a hip-hop-loving, billionaire venture capitalist

Also popping up in the season opener at the “Free Lucious” rally orchestrated by his family to mostly promote some of their new tracks, are: Al Sharpton, CNN’s Don Lemon, Swizz Beatz, Miss Lawrence and Sean Cross. Beatz’ wife Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Pitbull, Kelly Rowland and Adam Rodriquez, who apparently has an affinity for Cookie(s), will all turn up in upcoming shows.

There will be no spoiler alerts here but I do foresee a future in which Lucious’ biggest battles will be against members of his family. He’ll remarry a sweet and clueless woman who will become Cookie’s biggest adversary and he’ll get away with murder—again.

Wait, maybe that happened during Dynasty’s second season.