Terrence Howard, Jussie Smollett, Taraji P. Henson, Trai Byers, Kaitlin Doubleday, Bryshere Y. Gray
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Ideally, every episode of Empire would be as good as the pilot, or “The Devil Quotes Scripture,” and the show would never be as disappointing as “The Outspoken King.” But because extremes are comforting, Empire would be an easier show to love if it committed to being fantastic or being terrible. By combining the primetime soap opera and the musical television series, genres both known for violently fluctuating quality, Empire has given itself license to be awful and still command a healthy audience. Television series fail all the time, but there’s a reason why a failure like Smash is incredibly fun to watch while one like, say, Low Winter Sun is not. Empire doesn’t necessarily have to be good to be good.

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“Our Dancing Days” isn’t frustrating because it’s a middling episode, it’s because there’s a great episode inside of it crying out for rescue. It doesn’t make so many missteps as to suggest Empire’s writers have no idea what to do with the solid foundation Danny Strong left for them, it suggests they have an idea of what to do but can’t figure out how to do it. “Our Dancing Days” is like watching a vintage performance car driven by someone who understands the basic concept behind a stick shift, but has never actually driven one.

“Our Dancing Days” should be much better than it is, if only because its episodic story is conceptually sound in a way the other episodes’ stories of the week haven’t been. In preparation for the IPO, Empire Records is preparing for an investor showcase. It’s a major opportunity for Lucious to shore up Empire’s future as a company, as well as the perfect opportunity for a member of the family to demonstrate their value to Empire’s future. Lucious wants to take the company public and needs venture capital to do it with, but is stricken with debilitating health symptoms at the worst possible time. First, Lucious is hospitalized due to a reaction from experimental drug given to him by his quack, boutique doctor, then he suffers vocal cord paralysis minutes before he has to deliver his hard sell to the investors. The story makes sense and has clearly defined stakes. Someone has to step up to save Empire.

It’s the perfect framework for an episode of Empire, but that perfection exposes the degree to which the larger narrative has gone from sharp to fuzzy. The Shakespearean battle laid out in the pilot was one between Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem, each of whom had his reasons for wanting to inherit the Empire throne. Jamal and Hakeem would battle through music, with Cookie and Lucious managing their careers, essentially using their sons as proxies in their own power struggle, while Andre would lie waiting to pounce when his brothers made mistakes.

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The parameters of that story have been redrawn to Empire’s detriment. Why, for example, would Jamal and Hakeem perform as a duo at the investor showcase rather than letting it be the venue in which they finally do battle? Lucious and Cookie spend the episode convincing the brothers to squash their beef, as if they haven’t exacerbated the rivalry at every turn, and when it isn’t always evident Jamal and Hakeem are beefing in the first place. The sibling rivalry element is a snake swallowing its own tail because it’s unclear how and where the battle lines are drawn and who wants what.

The murkiness is the result of how oddly Lucious and Cookie’s relationship has developed and how their evolution affects Anika, the family, and the company. For Empire to perform at its best, the characters have to be pulled in multiple directions by the desire for money, power, and influence and the desire for loving, harmonious relationships with their direct competition. The simmering tension between Lucious and Cookie is the perfect example of that dynamic. Cookie got out of prison looking to bum-rush Empire and take back the company she started, but that quest has been compromised by the return of her romantic feelings for Lucious, feelings she assumed were long dead. Their reconciliation needed to develop gradually because Empire Records stops mattering to the audience the moment it stops mattering to the characters, and in “Our Dancing Days,” both Lyons seem to have forgotten the objective.

Having Cookie take the podium to give the pivotal speech in Lucious’ stead is an inspired story choice, but here, Lucious’ selection is an emotional decision more than a business decision, and I’m not convinced it’s the one he would make. If the primary goal is saving the company, allowing Anika or even Andre to give the speech seems like the better play. Instead, Lucious chooses Cookie, despite her failure to deliver Elle Dallas due to Anika’s sabotage, and despite having chosen Anika to accompany him to the emergency room. Then, after Cookie’s moment of triumph, Lucious actually says “I love you” aloud, inches away from Anika. It’s an inscrutable decision from a man who has been primarily defined by his desire to protect his company at all costs, and it’s in service of a purported love triangle that never seems to have more than two sides.

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The underlying narrative flaw is the combination of the investor showcase and Lucious’ announcement of his condition. The way “Our Dancing Days” lays the story out, it’s difficult to determine what plays the bigger role in Lucious and Cookie’s drunken hook-up. Say the writers had delayed Lucious’ health disclosure, and that for reasons that made more sense, Cookie winds up giving the speech that convinces the potential investors to buy in. Those are the grounds for a satisfying hook-up between Lucious and Cookie, a celebration after she comes through in the clutch for the company they struggled and sacrificed to build together. On an emotional level, it works for Cookie to be drawn to Lucious once she finds out he’s going to die, but using his illness to facilitate their reunion waters down the significance of Cookie coming through in the clutch. The long-awaited hook-up is not as satisfying as it could be, and certainly not as sexy, except for people aroused by motor neutron diseases. (Surely, someone is.)

As for Anika walking in on Lucious and Cookie in the throes of passion, well, she pretty much brought that on herself. Anika is another character whose priorities and motivations aren’t well-defined. Is she in love with Lucious or Empire Records? Every sign points to the latter. “Out, Damned Spot” begins with Cookie showing up for the engagement celebration dressed in little more than a fur, and intending to hook up with Anika’s new fiance. That should probably warrant some follow-up from Anika, but instead of asking Lucious why Cookie would be so convinced sex was on the agenda, Anika is busy enlisting Porsha to advance her battle with Cookie. (No word on that yet.) In this episode, moments after Lucious chooses Cookie to address the investors, then says aloud that he loves her, the newly engaged couple is all smiles leaving the event, and Anika kisses him goodbye before heading off on an important trip to Chicago. Seriously, not even twin Lindsay Lohans could do a better job of convincing estranged spouses to have sex.

Empire has so many things going for it, but it can’t keep screwing up the basics.

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Stray observations:

  • Jamal is now the best character on Empire. Hands down.
  • But…that Jamal and Hakeem song built on “Money For Nothing” is so, so bad. That’s the song that’s going to convince investors to pump millions into the company? And that performance…the smoke, the microwave-headed bikini girls…just…wow.
  • Andre still isn’t taking his meds, I assume?
  • The Anika sabotage move was such a soapy contrivance, but that wasn’t the worst part of it. The worst part is that due to Courtney Love’s performance, I can always be convinced Elle Dallas is high, even when she’s not supposed to be.
  • So that Raven-Symone appearance was just a cameo then? That sweet little baby is still around, but I’m really surprised there wasn’t more with Olivia 2.0 this week. But that’s how Empire does business.
  • The scene with Jamal and Lucious talking about his marriage to Olivia is one of my favorite scenes in the show so far. I loved how Lucious compared his forcing the marriage to Jamal’s dodge during the radio interview. That’s not “I’m a homophobe because I’m black and a rapper and that’s what we do,” which is what the show has been implying about Lucious. Here, Lucious seems more like the type of parent who has conflated his bigotry with his genuine love and concern for his son.
  • Speaking of Jamal, so long Michael! Enjoy Fire Island. Michael is the worst.
  • Camilla is back, and apparently Hakeem is through with Tiana.
  • Also, Naomi Campbell is reportedly dating Justin Bieber. That kid is going to be so heartbroken when he figures out Campbell is just using him. After all, what better way to prepare for the role of Camilla than to date the white Hakeem?

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