Fox

Empire was hardly a sleeper hit when it began last season. Fox promoted the show heavily; it didn’t sneak out of the woodwork completely unannounced. Still, no one quite predicted just how big of a hit Empire would be. Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon explains this season that Empire the record company had to grow into its name, and Empire the show has followed a similar path. Season two premieres with a huge scene—a “Free Lucious” rally and concert—that embodies just how big and bold Empire has become.

This year, the writers are faced with a new challenge: Viewers know Empire. But that can work to the writers’ advantage, as the show certainly plays to its strengths in the early episodes of this new season. Cookie, undeniably the most enthralling character in the show’s first season, plays an even bigger part in the central narrative now (Terrence Howard’s Lucious Lyon barely appears in the premiere, and it’s for the better). But season two also hangs onto repetition, a defining part of Empire’s storytelling in season one. That’s not always a bad thing, especially when the show finds emotionally compelling ways to push characters in new directions. But sometimes, those forces doing the pushing show a little too much, and Empire becomes an exhausting never-ending strategy game of moving the players around and around and around.

In its second season, Empire is still about the same central conflict: Everyone wants control of Empire. The two-part season-one finale set up the new terms for this battle, locking up Lucious, who leaves Jamal (Jussie Smollett) in charge of Empire, with Andre (Trai Byers), Anika (Grace Gealey), Cookie, and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) plotting a hostile takeover. Season two picks up with the promise of that coup, and then it’s over almost as quickly as it began. In classic Empire form, the premiere burns through a story most shows would probably dedicate a multi-episode arc to: The characters all say “hostile takeover” about 75 times, then do the deed. It doesn’t quite work out the way they thought, but it’s over now, and it’s time to move onto the next power play: Dynasty, a new record company led by Cookie. Suddenly, Empire goes hurtling down a whole new set of simultaneous, breathless storylines.

Season two certainly retreads some of the same shifty waters as season one, just as Dynasty provides new opportunities for the show’s characters—and a whole new battleground for the Empire war to play with. Dynasty heightens the Cookie versus Lucious showdown, expands the world of the show, and revitalizes some characters with new motivation and purpose. Suddenly, Cookie’s running shit again, and Hakeem’s building a new girl group. Unfortunately, this all means that Empire still struggles with moderation. So much happens all the time, and now there isn’t just the revolving door of Empire to deal with, but also the revolving door of Dynasty, as both teams try to steal players from one another.

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Empire is still rife with the soapy conventions that have shaped its overall voice. The show’s characters are always rolling down windows in dark cars and dropping bombs on each other as elevator doors close. These over-the-top conventions make Empire fun even at its most chaotic, especially because the actors all play it with a grounded sense of realness. Musical cues continue to be the show’s most unapologetically soapy element: The heavy-handed snare run after Cookie drops a “Let me tell you something, ho” on Anika is exactly the kind of spectacle expected from a prime Cookie moment.

The characters remain Empire’s greatest strength, as well as the reason the show can get away with so much soapy ridiculousness. Cookie pulls some of her most over-the-top moves yet, but it’s all rooted in real emotion and cogent character work. She sat back and watched Lucious build the empire that she started, and now she wants to be the one in the throne. Jamal is all over the place in his new role at Empire, still craving his father’s approval and turning into his father in the process. Hakeem just wants to be bigger than his father ever was. Andre… well, the writers still struggle with Andre’s motivations sometimes, but he’s unwavering in his commitment to Empire. The whatever-it-takes drive all of the characters have infuses Empire with consistently high stakes.

And the new characters in season two introduces add some fun dynamics, especially Marisa Tomei’s Mimi Whiteman, a gay venture capitalist who quickly proves to be just the kind of heightened villain at which Empire excels. Empire’s storytelling often lacks restraint, but fantastic performances and thrilling character dynamics keep it from teetering into truly silly territory. Season two doubles down on the spectacle, but the big production elements—the glam costumes, the radio-ready music, the melodramatic framing devices—are the perfect way to package Empire’s big themes. Ambition, loyalty, and family are still at the heart of Empire, and it unspools these themes in theatrical ways that lend to the series’ sweeping, breathless narrative. That’s not to say the show is completely without nuance, but Empire’s philosophy is go big or go home, and it never backs down from that.

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Reviews by Joshua Alston will run weekly.