When "Empire" debuted on Fox in January, it was hardly under-the-radar. Fox spent a lot on the hip-hop soap opera, its cast laden with Oscar-nominated stars, hailing from an Emmy-winning writer and an Oscar-nominated director, and featuring songs from one of the biggest names in the music business.
But having hopes isn't the same as having expectations, and Fox never could have imagined that Empire would become the ratings phenomenon of the spring, that it would become the Television Critics Association's program of the year, that it would thrust Taraji P. Henson's Cookie onto lists of TV's most iconic characters.
Fortunately, director-producer Lee Daniels doesn't have a stealth mode, and Empire roared out to start its second season on Wednesday, 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.
When we left, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) was in jail for murder, Jamal (Jussie Smollett) was in charge of Empire and Cookie, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray), Andre (Trai Byers) and the rest were fighting for the soul of Empire Entertainment, or at least a piece of the lucrative pie. Hakeem remains too bratty and Dre too tortured to ever become another Lucious, but there are early hints that the second season may find Jamal exploring his inner Michael Corleone, which I would welcome.
For all the ways in which "Empire" is distractingly glutted, there is a welcome purity to the main narrative thrust of the second season, which picks up three months after the finale. Everybody just wants Empire and they're willing to backstab, double-deal or worse to get there. Blood may be thicker than water, but it's positively soupy when compared with gold.
'Empire' fans sing their way into chance to appear in season 2
Rumors that Lucious and Howard were being deemphasized in some way this season immediately prove laughable. Howard is at the center of the action, as Lucious' master plan includes a musical comeback, even while incarcerated.
In the early going, Lucious interacts with many of the season's big guest stars, including short-term players like Chris Rock as a cold-blooded gangster, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges as a guard with an agenda, Andre Royo as a fancy-dressing defense attorney and Tyra Ferrell as a prosecutor hoping to leverage Lucious for professional advancement.
That's only the vanguard of the guest-star parade. Out in the civilian world, Cookie is negotiating with Marisa Tomei's Mimi Whiteman, a venture capitalist with a love for the ladies, and a slew of nascent breakthrough artists are trying to have their songs heard, with standouts including Becky G's deceptively helium-voiced Valentina and Bre-Z's silver-tongued rapper Freda.
Then you have all of the artists and media personalities who pop up playing themselves, led by returning guest Sway, but also Don Lemon and Al Sharpton. Oh, and Pitbull pops up as well, because this is Fox, a network that should precede every show with the warning, "May Contain Pitbull."
Would that it could, Fox has not extended "Empire" to two weekly hours, and when stars like Rock and Tomei want in, you want them there, even if the best that can be said about those two performances is that they fit into the world of the show without distraction. That still means there's less time for other people, and you know that Lucious, Cookie, Andre, Jamal and Hakeem are getting their screen time.
As a result, Ta'Rhonda Jones' Porsha and Gabourey Sidibe's Becky are both way on the fringes in the early going, which will surely disappoint fans who embraced those two sources of quirky comic relief, though both actresses were elevated to cast regulars this season, so the marginalization may be temporary.
I'd also argue that Cookie is in the process of evolving in these early episodes. She still loves garish outfits and she still uncorks a few fantastically inappropriate zingers, but the character feels more controlled and calculated this season.
When we met Cookie, she was being released after 17 years in the hoosegow and she was like an unpredictable caged animal. It isn't that she's becoming domesticated, but maybe she's becoming more at ease with life on the outside. It doesn't make her less fun or less dangerous, but maybe it makes her less unpredictable?
Here, again, we welcome Lee Daniels, and presumably also EPs Danny Strong and Ilene Chaiken, who are determined to keep "Empire" confrontational. The season's opening scene is an instantly defining point, a protest concert for Lucious that mingles outrage at a fictional crime, one in which we know the accused is guilty, with the all-too-real conflagrations around Eric Garner and Michael Brown.
There's a friction between the fictional imagery (#FreeLucious signs) and advocacy chants ("Justice for all!" "How much longer?") and the 2015 state of race relations in America, and Daniels & Co. want viewers to feel that discomfort. It's in these moments, or in the flashbacks dealing with familial histories of mental illness, that keep "Empire" on solid ground and make the show more interesting than just a playlist of earworm hits and a torrent of Cookie catchphrases.
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. Here's hoping the "Empire" team holds on to that and holds on to some of the little things that made the show initially work without becoming overwhelmed by how big it has gotten.