How do you improve a show like Empire in leaps and bounds? Hire a writer as smart and savvy as Wendy Calhoun. A veteran of equally soapy shows like Nashville and Revenge, as well as the top notch drama Justified, Calhoun is as pro as it gets, and she helped hack off the rough edges of Empire this week, right when it needed it.
Her smartest move was keeping to a pair of core storylines, while teasing out some of the plot that is building up for further ahead in the season. We got the little nuggets of gold, with Luscious finally telling Anika about his ALS diagnosis, and Andre subtly revealing that he now knows about his father killing Bunkie. But the bullion was all to be found in Empire’s full court press to sign a controversial but incredibly talented rapper named Titan (talented by this show’s standards, at least), and Cookie’s slow, snaky work getting back into the fold of the label.
The team works all angles after Titan is jailed for shooting a rival gang member. Cookie visits the rapper’s mom, a Nation of Islam member who loves, but pities her son. Anika and Luscious make an appeal to Titan’s manager at a meeting that ends with a drive-by shooting. And just as he’s about to give up, Luscious uses his fame to get a meeting with Titan in prison, throwing some money at the rapper to rebuild a community center that his enemies burned down, as well as a phone to record his rhymes.
While Cookie was helping to grease the wheels of the Titan signing, she was also helping to push forward the career of her newest managerial client, Tiana. The same young lady who is sleeping with Hakeem (they are now, apparently, called Takeem in the tabloids) and, in her manager’s eyes, “this label’s fiercest young female artist.” After a few weeks of some pretty weak tunes on this show, I have to admit that Cookie might have a point, when Tiana premieres a new song at the nomination announcements for the Teen Choice Awards, a banging club anthem called “Keep It Movin’.” And she’s helped by a guest spot by Hakeem, a move that even Luscious has to smile about.
This week’s episode also had its fair share of trumped-up melodrama—the constant gamesmanship going on between Cookie and Anika; the tense sit down with Luscious and fellow hip-hop mogul Billy Beretti (played by none other than former Brat Pack idol Judd Nelson), where the latter threatens to bury Empire’s IPO chances. And then another tête-à-tête between Jamal and his father that allows the younger Lyon man to further assert his independence. For once, those scenes were just great side dishes, rather than the whole meal. More of this please, Empire.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.