Wednesday, September 21, 2016

REVIEW: 'Empire' - The Entire Lyon Family is Shaken After a Tragic Death in 'Light in Darkness'

FOX's Empire - Episode 3.01 "Light in Darkness"

The premiere picks up exactly where Season 2 ended - Hakeem left at the altar, Lucious and Anika married and Anika and Rhonda fighting on the roof - until someone falls. Also, Lucious pursues his music legacy with his streaming service, while clashing with his half-brother, Tariq, who is leading a federal task force investigating him.

Empire really did fly off the rails during its second season. It was hard to watch at times. The show just became so erratic and inconsistent. It opted for big and shocking moments instead of character-based ones. It became difficult to understand why anyone was doing anything. It was hard to rationalize why everyone kept returning to Lucious despite all of the horrible things he has done and continues to do. Empire was a show built on family. It lost that last season. And now, it's attempting to rebuild it in "Light in Darkness." This premiere does suffer because it has to offer plenty of resolution to the big cliffhangers from the end of last season. But for the most part, it is a more subdued hour. Yes, Lucious remains the worst human being imaginable. But now, the rest of the family is openly showing more contempt for him. This is a dark first episode back that tries to get to something deep. It doesn't always succeed. But the effort is at least admirable and will ensure a couple more episodes will be watched to see if it's a genuine turnaround.

First off, "Light in Darkness" has to provide an answer to who fell off the balcony. It was this huge cliffhanger moment that come across as pure melodramatic soap opera. That's a quality the show has embraced so much over two seasons. It has worked a lot too. And yet, it was hard to care about because neither Anika nor Rhonda were all that interesting as characters. Who genuinely cared about the outcome of this resolution? It's sole purpose was to motivate one of the other, more important characters through this death. It's once again the horrible trope of woman needing to die in order to send her male counterpart on an intense journey. It's lame and gotten way too cliche. Female characters deserve more than that. But Anika and Rhonda have always fit into that wife or girlfriend mode. Whenever they appear outside of that framework, it's only for a brief moment before they need to return to it. Rhonda was a part of this family. And yet, she really didn't have a relationship with anyone other than Andre. She and Jamal maybe had one scene together and she spent absolutely no time with Hakeem. Meanwhile, Anika just pops up to be an obstacle in the way of Lucious and Cookie's alleged grand love story.

It's ultimately not surprising at all that Rhonda is the one killed off at the top of this premiere. It was the easy prediction to make following the second season finale. Anika had been given way too much importance leading up to that moment. It would have felt weird for Lucious to have to marry Anika in order to keep her from testifying against her only for her to die a couple of minutes later. That was an important complication for the show. This new FBI investigation is going to be a major storyline this season. That was apparent the moment it was revealed that Tariq is actually Lucious' half-brother. Again, another crazy reveal that meant nothing because Tariq didn't exist as a character before that. Lucious deserves to be in jail. But there's only so many times the show can depict a federal agent trying to get him and then fail to do so. Now, it's bigger and more personal than ever before because of the family connection. It's the show trying to refocus everything around family. Lucious' family to be precise. So, Anika lives and Rhonda dies. Plus, Anika gives birth to her daughter. It all happens so suddenly in the first act of this premiere. It's startling that she was that far along. She didn't seem like it last season. And yet, there's now a baby to further add to the family complications.

The three Lyon brothers are perhaps in the darkest head spaces they have ever been in. Andre is dealing with the sudden and tragic death of his wife. He didn't believe Rhonda when she said Anika pushed her down the stairs. And now, she's dead and he is seemingly spiraling into a psychosis. Jamal is still dealing with the aftermath of getting shot. That was another big and surprising moment of last season that didn't feel earned. It was only a few episodes ago in the show's timeline. But Jamal is already up and moving and performing. And yet, he is still dealing with some severe PTSD symptoms. He is unable to perform. He essentially has a panic attack on stage. And lastly, Hakeem is failing to cope with his father stealing his wedding and his baby. He was left at the alter because of the chaos of his family. And now, he has nothing and no respect at all. He's right back to being the baby of the family proclaiming that he is a man when in reality he is far from it. He grew a lot last season. But now, it feels like he is falling once again because of the alienation of his family. It's a lot of heavy emotions for all of these characters. It means this opening hour of the season is pretty dark and emotional with no indication that it will get any better in the future.

During Jamal's big performance that marks his return to the stage following the shooting, he is unable to perform. He struggles a little bit doing the rehearsal. His pain is still quite high. He may be developing a pain killer addiction. The signs are all there for the show to go down that route. It's not abundantly apparent. His issues are though. He's unable to perform simply because of the pressure of the crowd. What was once so exciting to him is now terrifying. The energy from the crowd is what got him into performing on a global scale. And now, he's fleeing the stage because he can't breathe. Cookie and Hakeem are there to support him while Lucious just wants to shoot him in the head for giving away this once in a lifetime moment. The performance was to help launch Lucious' new streaming service, Empire Extreme. The crowd doesn't get a performance from Jamal. Instead, they get one from Shyne's protege, Nessa. Shyne is proving to be an important part of this season as well. He's continuing to force his way into the lives of the Lyons. Nessa taking this moment ensures that he will remain a complication for Lucious to deal with. But Shyne also helps Hakeem in the studio more than Lucious does. It's an odd moment considering Shyne was part of the reason why Laura called off the wedding in the first place. The show seems to be suggesting that the music is more important than that. If so, it doesn't quite do enough to back up those claims. Music is important for Hakeem's recovery but it's not for Jamal's. Those are some key differences that the show only barely scratches the surface on.

Everything that happens in "Light in Darkness" means Cookie can't leave Lucious in the way that she wanted to after his impromptu wedding to Anika. She fell for him again and he betrayed her. Now, she just wants to be at home cutting his face out of every picture. She can't do that though. Her family needs her now more than ever before. She's there to support Andre and Jamal through their struggles. She takes a different approach with Hakeem. She no longer hits him with objects but with her words. She's losing respect for him because of his petty actions. She's a grandma now and Hakeem isn't acting like a father. He needs to step up and take responsibility for that instead of being in the studio acting like the man in charge. But there's a bit of uncertainty to Cookie's story as well. Her sisters are open to what Tariq has to say. He has a meeting with Cookie that the audience doesn't get to see. She's certainly in the right frame of mind to want to take Lucious down for everything he has done. She doesn't want her kids to get hurt and that's why she refuses to turn on him. That's why she still shows up at the family dinner to put on a good face for Tariq. But is something more going on? It remains a possibility. Cookie has been broken down by everything her family has gone through as of late. She's sick and tired of Lucious. She wants strong divisions between them at work. She loves music and wants her children to succeed. Lucious often complicates that. The show seems to be doing that as well. How can Lucious and Cookie's great love story be over - like Cookie wants - if the show is now doing flashbacks that show how they first met? How is she going to emerge from this darkness if the show is actively showing us why she and Lucious are such a great couple deserving of this epic love story in the first place? It's a weird story beat that leaves me very concerned for the future.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Light in Darkness" was written by Malcolm Spellman & Joshua Allen and directed by Sanaa Hamri.
  • The show struggled to use its regular collection of characters last season. And now, the show has bumped even more up to series regular status. Yes, Kaitlin Doubleday is gone but she has been replaced by Xzibit, Morocco Omari and Bre Z. All three were promoted which hints at even more importance for them in the future.
  • Now that Rhonda has been killed off, what show should Kaitlin Doubleday join that can actually use her. If she is anything like her sister - Mr. Robot's Portia Doubleday - she's very talented and just wasn't properly utilized here.
  • Hakeem has had way too many romantic-based stories. It's great that Nessa shuts him down immediately when he tries to impress her in the studio. He should be focusing on fatherhood. Instead, he may repeat old mistakes.
  • Lucious' mother continues to be a terrifying presence. She appears completely harmless in public. She cries out that the family is being punished after Rhonda's death. But then, she immediately threatens Anika as soon as she moves into Lucious' mansion again.
  • That dinner scene served as Tariq's official welcome into the Lyon family. And yet, it largely just played as the show summarizing every horrible thing Lucious has done to every single member of this family.
  • Jamal's song was a plea to stop gun violence in this country. It's a song with an important message. That's powerful enough without the images and words showing up in the background. That was almost a little too distracting doing that sequence.
  • The rest of the family cares so little about Rhonda and her death that literally nothing stops moving forward like any other day to them. Andre is mourning but that's it! It's weird. There isn't even a funeral. I guess plot trumps character yet again.