When Empire’s executive producers Lee Daniels and Danny Strong first introduced us to Lucious Lyon, his ex-wife Cookie and the rest of their family, few would have guessed that their soapy hip-hopera would conquer primetime.
Conquer it did, as the Fox drama grew to be the second most-watched new TV series of 2014-2015, averaging 17.33 million viewers a week and clocking the top slot in the 18-49 demo. Taraji P. Henson scored an Emmy nomination for her over-the-top portrayal of Cookie, who might as well be the spiritual twin to Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington. But Cookie’s scheming ex Lucious (Terrence Howard) always is two steps ahead of her and everyone else, spurred on by a hunger to rule the hip-hop world and, when we first met him, a grim medical diagnosis.
Expectations are high for Empire’s second season, premiering on September 23 at 9pm. Fortunately the three new episodes released to critics do not disappoint. Before you settle in to watch who or what the Lyons tear apart next, here are 10 things you might want to know.
FIRST ITEM ON THE MENU: BEEF
Empire’s most unforgettable scenes happen at special events, whether they take place at Lucious’s club Leviticus or around an ornately appointed table. Lucious usually instigates the drama, only to have Mama Cookie fabulously shut everything down with a jaw-dropping move like the one above. This wonderful tradition continues in season two with the added twist that Cookie, Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), Andre (Trai Byer) and Lucious’s ex-fiancée Anika (Grace Gealey) have joined forces to seize control of Empire Entertainment. Who’s hungry for that dish? We’ll have a portion, served cold.
ALL HAIL LUCIOUS LYON, FATHER OF THE YEAR
Season one is a catalogue of Lucious Lyon’s many sins, which ranged from emotionally torturing his sons — Jamal (Jussie Smollett), in particular — and cheating on his wife-to-be with multiple women, including his ex, to murdering one of his oldest friends. The good news is he’s no longer dying. He is in prison, however. Don’t feel sorry for Lucious. A caged lion is just as dangerous as a roaming one.
COOKIE IS STILL EMPIRE’S EVERYTHING
She’s a talented producer and manager who dresses to destroy, and knows how to make an entrance and an exit. If Cookie says she’s going to do something, she does it, which Anika discovered the hard way in the season one finale. So when Cookie sets the stage for a hostile takeover, trust that she means to make that happen.
…BUT WILL COOKIE CRUMBLE?
Doing time may have made Cookie tough, but when it comes to her blood she’s ride or die. What has that loyalty gained her? While she was in prison, Lucious sidelined Cookie in the family business that her drug money helped to launch, and distanced her from her sons. Nevertheless, when Cookie could have implicated Lucious in a murder, she kept her mouth shut. Whether he believes her is another matter. But Cookie may have hotter messes in the oven, in the form of unfinished business from her past.
JAMAL’S NEW GROOVE…
…could end up feeling like a rut. With Pops in prison, the most talented son of the Lyon family holds the reins as Lucious’ successor. That doesn’t sit well with his brothers Andre and Hakeem. But even Jamal may have his doubts, as he realizes that running Empire is getting in the way of his music career. What compromises will he make to remain in his father’s good graces?
THE MUSIC’S STILL HOT
Empire’s soapy storylines seduced fans from the jump, but its tremendous soundtrack shaped by Timbaland, Jim Beanz and Ne-Yo, made the show’s appeal explode. Empire: Original Soundtrack Season 1 has the record sales to prove the songs have heat, selling more than 1.7 million singles and 411,000 albums. The music featured in season two’s first three episodes is just as sharp, with guest appearances by Pitbull, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys lined up.
ANDRE AND RHONDA, A COUPLE FOR THE (SHAKESPEAREAN) AGES
If Strong and Daniels first styled Empire as a modern take on King Lear, then Andre Lyon and his wife Rhonda (Kaitlin Doubleday) are acting out their own version of The Scottish Play. Andre stabbed both of his brothers in the back to secure his position at Empire, while Rhonda will do anything (that bib!) to help her husband rise and to mitigate his bipolar disorder. Now that they’re literally partners in crime with a baby on the way, Andre and Rhonda must maintain a united front as the takeover scheme unfolds.
HAKEEM: STEPPING UP?
What Hakeem lacks in business acumen and modesty, he makes up for in brashness and vision. In Cookie’s new world order, he may come up with the best ideas to keep things fresh – that is, if he can make his decisions with the head on his shoulders instead of the one in his pants. Hakeem plays a part in discovering Valentina, a new scene stealer played by Becky G. However, Tiana (Serayah McNeill) is still around.
BOO BOO KITTY SHARPENS HER CLAWS
How well Anika held her own in that finale throwdown is debatable, but she has no intention of forgiving her ex and will go to ridiculous lengths to claim victory for herself. Whether she has moves like Cookie remains to be seen, but as one hilarious moment in the second season premiere shows us, she’ll even twerk — angrily — if it helps her get what she wants.
EMPIRE’S NEW GUEST LIST
The show never had problems attracting impressive guest stars, with Naomi Campbell, Raven-Symoné, Jennifer Hudson, Courtney Love, Gladys Knight, Judd Nelson, Fabolous, Patty LaBelle and Cuba Gooding, Jr. among the names that spiced up season one. The drama’s sophomore run features guest appearances by Chris Rock, Marisa Tomei, Ludacris, Kelly Rowland, Tyra Ferrell and Andre Royo within the first few episodes, in addition to Adam Rodriguez, along with cameos by Andre Leon Talley and Al Sharpton.
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based writer who serves on the board of the Television Critics Association. Her work has appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times, Variety and Salon, among other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision.