Is ‘Empire’s’ Commitment to Soap Opera Overshadowing Its Strongest Storylines?

Though Empire remains highly addictive, endlessly watchable appointment television in its second season, it’s hard to argue that this current season is better than its first. There are still the twists and turns, the gasp-worthy tweetable moments, and the songs made of pure fire (“Born to Lose” will be stuck in my head for at least another decade). But, as evidenced by last night’s mid-season finale, Empire might be committing a little too much to soap opera-style dramatics, and therefore squandering opportunities to flesh out important and enthralling storylines.

Of course, soap opera is in the series’ DNA. It’s black Dynasty, hip-hop Shakespeare, a weekly soap with the pacing of a daily telenovela. This has often worked to its advantage — the show has never spent an excessive amount of time on any single dramatic plot when it could quickly bury it (or unbury it, in Uncle Vernon’s case) and move on to the next. But now Empire is exhausting itself in an attempt to keep up that breakneck pace, and sacrificing vital exploration of the issues that actually make the show so important. Sure, last night’s midseason finale offered plenty of hashtag-OMG moments to flail about this morning: Who pushed Rhonda down the stairs, and is her baby OK? How will Hakeem last as the lone cub taking on the Lyon pride? Was that really Da Brat? Why did Camilla return… and, wait, who is Camilla again?

But therein lies the problem: Camilla’s return didn’t land as dramatically as it should have for many viewers simply because many viewers completely forgot who she was. She was integral enough in Season 1, quickly disposed of by its end, and had never been mentioned once in the second season. Her former lover Hakeem seemed to have forgotten her entirely, seeing as he had spent the last few episodes floating between two specific women: the pregnant Anika and the virginal Laura. Camilla’s sudden return and Hakeem’s sudden devolution into a lovestruck pod person were more confusing than dramatic. Empire already provided us with plenty of reasons why Hakeem would vote for ousting his father from Empire, reasons that were conveniently laid out in a flashback montage of all the terrible things Lucious had done that made their father/son and employer/employee relationship so tumultuous. Adding Camilla — and linking her return to Mimi Whiteman, as the two are now married, their vows presumably just the result of a mutual desire for revenge — didn’t seem entirely necessary to catalyze Hakeem’s decision.

Don’t get me wrong: “Et Tu, Brute?” was an occasionally fantastic, thoroughly engaging, and exciting hour of dramatic television. It was off-the-rails and silly, funny, and heartbreaking all at once. (Taraji P. Henson remains perfect, as always.) But it didn’t spend enough time on the plots that deserve deeper consideration. Last week’s episode ended on a cliffhanger in which Jamal, an openly gay musician, kisses Skye Summer, a woman singer he’s collaborating with. The shock was supposed to be in Jamal having feelings for a woman, and the hope was that “Et Tu, Brute” would dive deeper into this storyline, exploring fluid sexuality and discussing how this could affect Jamal’s public perception. Instead, we got a ham-fisted, cloying “dialogue” in which Charlamagne Tha God comes at Skye for singing a song about being black when she’s mixed race and doesn’t “normally” identify as black and therefore is singing about a race she never claimed. This is certainly an aspect of multiracial identity that Empire could do wonders with, if it went deeper into the topic. But the episode simply pivoted to an obvious yet weak parallel to Jamal’s sexuality — “You gay, right?” — giving him an opportunity to say that, yes, he is gay, even as he’s standing next to the woman he recently discovered (and acted on) an attraction to.

There is so much going on there: Jamal’s insistence on being labeled “gay,” which could have to do with his father, his self-perception, his career, and so on; Jamal’s — and Empire’s — hesitation to utter the word “bisexual” (which is a problem that is too common on television) or even the character’s internal conflict about how exactly to identify; the notion of fluid sexuality and fluid identity, and especially its existence within the hip-hop world. Instead of digging into any one of these rich topics, they’re basically all shrugged away so the episode can make time for Lucious’ Empire-related dramatics and Rhonda getting unceremoniously pushed down a staircase.

Empire is supposed to be quick and full to the brim with juicy theatrics — that’s part of its charm. But when it starts to sacrifice some of the greatness and originality that are embedded within its emotional, rarely explored storylines in favor of more overt silliness, the show begins to suffer. In Season 1, Empire proved that it could strike an admirable and praiseworthy balance between the two aspects of the show — creating, essentially, a soap opera with real depth. I have no doubt that it can regain that original balance as it enters the second half of Season 2 in 2016, but last night’s midseason finale showed signs that Empire is flying too close to the sun, and is inching dangerously nearer to implosion.