When Variety reported last year that Empire was pausing production to have its writers regroup with executive producers, the news seemed like a not-so-subtle hint that the show was taking yet another step back to figure out how to make it great again. Judging by its totally insane spring return, they have found their answer. Watching a one-legged Lucious (Terrence Howard) struggle to break free of the chains his demented nurseClaudia (Demi Moore) bound him in was like watching some sort of B-movie mashup of Misery and Black Snake Moan — a completely absurd yet entirely thrilling moment that revealed a core truth: Empire is best when it is utterly ridiculous.
It wasn't always this way. Empire has suffered from an identity crisis, and recent yo-yoing and drops in ratings reflect that. Once the highest rated show in its demo, Empire — which is still a ratings success story for Fox, it should be noted — was also once a semi-serious drama rooted in three brothers' Shakespearean struggle to control their father's fortune. Yet somewhere along the way people started talking to ghosts (still Shakespearean, to be fair), Lucious' son Hakeem (Bryshere "Yazz" Gray) made a baby with his father's girlfriend and Lucious' elderly mom started shanking people with her cake-cutting knife. None of these turns were wrong for the soap per se, but they became hard to balance with Empire's explorations of high-minded stuff like music business strategy (yawn), Black Lives Matter (in song!) and Jamal's (Jussie Smollett) PTSD. Toggling between absurd and thoughtful felt disorienting, and incohesive.
But hey, if Empire's going to live in a place where its amnesia-ridden hero might escape the clutches of his deranged health care aide by using his prosthetic leg as a weapon then, hell yes, that's something to stay tuned for and celebrate every week. Let's face it, nobody's here for thoughtful dialogue or meaningful character arcs anymore. People want to see this pride of hyenas in fancy clothes fight, and set fire to things. Keep up the crazy, Empire!
Empire has earned a right to be bizarre. When it premiered in 2015, Empire shattered records, expectations and myths that the public at large would not latch on to a minority-led show. Since then, a small forest of other mostly black series has popped up — all of them doing drama (Queen Sugar), heightened reality (Atlanta) and dramedy (Insecure) more cohesively and consistently. The landscape for black-led dramas is nowhere near as robust as it could be, but it has splintered enough that Empire no longer has to try to serve everybody; it can lean into its sweet spot of utter implausibility. Like the wonderfully self-aware Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Empire has the position to dive fearlessly into its specific brand of reality-adjacent goofiness, confident viewers will joyously await whatever eyeball-grabbing spectacle comes next. (Literally, grabbing an eyeball a la Uma Thurman in Kill Bill would be exactly the kind of deranged fun that makes sense for Empire.)
Naturally, Empire can't have a kidnapping, an overdose, an attempted murder and a pet being barbecued every week but it's clear that the old, slow way — seeing Hakeem whine about his feelings, plodding corporate boardroom turf wars, etc. — no longer cuts it. If Becky's (Gabourey Sidibe) baby becomes an Instagram model and buys Empire Records from her iPhone, so be it. If Jamal marries a man who turns out to be a Russian spy, which in turn makes Cookie a government agent who's a cross between her Proud Mary character and Elizabeth from The Americans then sure, why not? The more far out the better. It's time for Empire to live in its glorious, unhinged truth.
Empire airs Wednesdays at 8/7c on Fox.