By Gary Levin | Gannett News Service
Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson, the stars of TV’s biggest new hit in years, are standing under the Chicago L tracks, filming a scene as trains rumble by above. He’s in a suit; she’s sporting a yellow skirt and blouse with leopards.
Their characters, once-married Lucious and Cookie Lyon, are still business rivals as “Empire” begins its second season Wednesday (8 p.m., WFLD-Channel 32), but the family comes first, and they’re trying to resolve an ordeal involving their youngest son, Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray). Howard chain-smokes between takes, while Henson squeals repeatedly when a bee circles her as she taps on an iPad.
That’s not the only thing buzzing around the hip-hop soap, which last spring became the first show, at least since 1991, to build its audience every single week. The series, centered on a family and its record label, averaged 17.3 million viewers (26 million across all platforms), had the youngest audience of any big-network drama and marked the top-rated freshman series among young adults in 10 years.
Just 12 episodes aired last spring, but 18 are planned for this season, split between a 10-episode arc this fall and, after a few months off, eight more next spring.
“We pick up three months later, and there’s still discord in the family,” Henson says. “People don’t trust each other, allies are now rivals; I mean, it’s a mess.”
Though creator Lee Daniels famously pitched the show as a “black ‘Dynasty,’ ” the over-the-top soap aims for loftier literary overtones.
“If the first season of ‘Empire’ was built around the premise of who will inherit the throne, which is a full-on Shakespearean concept, Season 2 is warring kingdoms,” says executive producer Ilene Chaiken. “There are new alliances and new dynamics. It’s about the lengths the Lyons will go to thwart one another, and how they can possibly continue to love one another in the midst of all that.”
Cookie, Andre (Trai Byers), Hakeem and Anika (Grace Gealey) are forming a rival company. Lucious is in jail after being arrested for the murder of Cookie’s cousin Bunkie but later forms business ties with Jamal (Jussie Smollett), the gay son he’d cast aside.
“Jamal and Cookie are not really seeing eye to eye, [and] his loyalty kind of goes with Lucious for awhile because it feels like Cookie was the disloyal one,” Smollett says. “I love showing that dynamic of Lucious putting aside his silly beliefs and realizing that the one that was most like him was the one that he thought was least like him. I think it speaks volumes. Lucious is not, overnight, this incredible person, but still, it’s going someplace, and I feel like it’s showing people can change.”
Henson says the dynamic adds new story possibilities. “Who would think there’d be no more Team Cookie and Jamal? Out of the shadows comes this relationship with her other two sons, which we didn’t explore at all.”
Hotheaded Hakeem is adrift. “His music is unorthodox now; it’s not organized, he doesn’t have a main focus on what he wants to make,” Gray says. “He’s getting frustrated with himself because it’s not coming together, so he has his ups and downs.” His parents’ feud is having an impact, too: “He doesn’t have any guidance, he don’t feel loved. He’s trying to be a man through managing girls and messing up and stuff like that.”
And Byers’ Andre, an expectant father, is still haunted by the dark cloud of his role in the accidental death of his mentor, Vernon.
“Be prepared to see a completely different side of Andre, in a way that could aid the whole family,” Byers says. “There are polar opposites trying to come together and meet in the middle. Everybody’s changing, and we need each other to see our agenda through.”
Late that night, the crew shoots a scene with the entire clan in the Lyon living room. Mario Van Peebles is directing the episode, as his son, skateboarding around the cavernous studios, observes. Despite the serious subject matter, the mood is upbeat; the cast members seem to revel in their stardom, still new for some, and there’s a jokey camaraderie.
Byers shoots pool in Hakeem’s apartment. Smollett boasts that Jamal’s newest digs are the “dopest of dope” and confides he feels like “such a loser” for eating his lunch there. Henson complains of gas pains (she’s juicing) and Howard looks for an assistant to bring coffee (“How do you want it?” “Black, like my momma.”)
The next day finds Hakeem trying his hand at managing a girl group (he has a crush on one of its members), but things aren’t going well, on purpose, after Gray skips a rehearsal of the scene to make his choreography look more fumbling. Hakeem lashes out, but Porsha (Ta’Rhonda Jones), Cookie’s funny, feisty assistant, talks him down: “Let’s take a break before it get Ike and Tina up in here.”
“Empire” has been a much-needed shot in the arm for ailing Fox (although even with it, the network finished last among the Big 4 networks last season). And, to the network’s delight, its hit status has made it easier to book flashy guests: Executive producer Danny Strong says that “last season we were getting passed on all the time,” but now there’s a regular line of limos outside its sound stages: Joining returning faves such as Naomi Campbell and Jennifer Hudson are Alicia Keys, Kelly Rowland, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Common, Pitbull, and Chris Rock, who plays Lucious’ fellow convict in the season premiere.
Musicians also have climbed aboard as the show promises more frequent songs, with Ne-Yo and Swizz Beatz writing alongside Timbaland, Smollett and Gray, among others. And the story dictates a wider range of hip-hop.
“Some of the music is a little bit more aggressive,” Smollett says. “A lot of Jamal’s music is little bit bigger because he was stripped down in Season 1, and now he’s going for superstar status.”
Like other cast members, Howard is surprised at the show’s success – and because 63 percent of its audience is African-American, he says, there’s room to expand the fan base and still grow.
But “Empire’s” stars haven’t shared in riches, at least not yet. “We don’t benefit from the show’s success,” he says, sounding miffed. (Like most TV actors, he signed a long-term deal before the pilot was even shot, but studios often renegotiate with stars of hit shows). Financially, “it’s like we’re just doing the pilot over again.”
There’s a danger in another kind of repetition: Soaps tend to spin out of control as writers try to top themselves with more outlandish story lines. There was eye-rolling over last season’s final episodes, which saw Cookie try to smother Lucious with a pillow, Jamal surprised by a love child and Lucious learning that ALS, the disease that set last season’s plot in motion by prompting him to choose an heir to his company, was misdiagnosed.
“We burned through the story a little too fast last season,” Strong says. “It was fun to just do these crazy plot twists and completely undo something we had just set up moments before, but I think we maybe did it too much.”
Chaiken says there was a need last season to build momentum by doing “something gasp-worthy and unexpected” in each episode, but sometimes it came from left field.
This year, “the show is still rife with those moments,” she says, “but they come much more out of the stories we’re telling, and fewer of them come from ‘Oh my God, who’s that?’ ”
Daniels says some suits are “nervous about numbers and the whole idea of how you top last season. You simply don’t.” But he’s already interested in exploring a potential spinoff that looks at Cookie and Lucious’ less-fortunate families, and “what it’s like for a rich person to have 99.9 percent of your family still broke.”
In a rarity for network television, a few actors say writers have embraced their suggestions about this season’s story lines. Cookie’s life in prison will be explored through more flashbacks. (We’ll also meet another sister, played by Vivica A. Fox, whose different worldview causes tensions.) And the cast — especially Henson — are encouraged to improvise on set. After all, “Cookie is at the eye of the storm with her shotgun loaded,” Daniels says.
“Sometimes I black out and Cookie takes over. It’s like a possession,” Henson says. “And I’ll say these things and they’ll yell, ‘Cut!’ and everybody’s laughing and I’ll go, ‘What happened?’ And they’ll go, ‘Say it again, do it, say some more!’ ”
There’s a lot of Henson in Cookie, and a lot of Howard in Lucious, Smollett says, “except that Terrence’s heart is much purer than Lucious’. Half of the things Cookie says are made up by Taraji anyway.”
Says Henson: “I’m a fighter. Me coming to L.A. with $700 in my pocket and my son, that’s Cookie; that’s an American dream. A lot of her is me, but a lot of her is not me, too. I’m not going to beat my son with a broom.”