That’s the benefit of starting off crazy and then getting even crazier: It makes all of the absurdity easier to digest and accept, and it heightens the fun of watching. Empire‘s biggest goal is to entertain viewers, and it does such a good job at it that the duller and more troublesome elements become somewhat acceptable.
Throughout the first season, Empire‘s biggest problem has been Jamal’s storyline. Through Jamal, the series made a noble attempt to portray homophobia in hip-hop/black culture (depicting it as much more common than it actually is) but ended up going completely overboard. The show put such an emphasis on the “hip-hop hates gay people” narrative that it occasionally seemed more like it was Empire — not the hip-hop world at large — that hated Jamal. It would be somewhat justifiable if this were an entirely fictional universe, but it’s supposed to take place in our reality (last night, Snoop Dogg and Patti LaBelle guest-starred as themselves), and in that context, it’s hard to believe that Jamal would still be utterly terrified of coming out, or that Lucious would continue to have such a problem with his son’s sexuality. (The repeated use of the Jamal-in-heels flashback has taken that scene from real and affecting to gross and sensationalized.) Even when a fan is praising Jamal for inspiring his own coming out, that fan is white. It’s telling that the writers didn’t have a young, black fan deliver the same message.
But also in the finale, we meet Black Rambo, a rapper who refuses to work under Jamal because he is gay. This entire storyline is tempting to completely write off, but, in true Empire fashion, the series found a way to (sort of) make it to work, through a fairly silly rap battle that begins with Jamal singing, “So what I’m gay!” It’s that signature Empire ridiculousness that makes the more rough-around-the-edges plots more palatable.
It’s not that Empire can do no wrong — it can, and it certainly does; Andre’s “pray away the cray” and Lucious’ angry response to Andre’s bipolar disorder will never sit well with me. Rather, it’s that Empire always manages to escape its problems by throwing in something flashy and over-the-top to distract us. When it comes to Empire, we’re basically like kittens fawning over something shiny. It’s a show that thrives on the surface: the musical performances and theatrics, Cookie’s fabulous clothing and one-liners, the rap battles and fistfights and cold-blooded murder. It may destroy its own plot or fail at accurately depicting the more important issues, but these are all things that can be fixed in Season 2. For now, Empire is about the spectacle, and that spectacle is all I need.