Wednesday night’s Season 2 premiere of Empire tied up one major loose end from the first season: We finally met Frank Gathers. Frank was the man Cookie incriminated in Episode 5 (“Dangerous Bonds”), when she testified that he murdered an undercover FBI agent—and then, mistakenly believing that he had found out about her testimony and was out to retaliate, took out a hit on him. For the remaining seven episodes of Season 1, radio silence. It was as if Frank Gathers didn’t exist. But now, at last, we’re properly introduced to him—and he’s played by none other than Chris Rock.
Frank is finally being brought to justice for murdering the FBI agent, and he shows up in the same penitentiary as the one Lucious is now serving time in for murdering Bunkie. Last season, Frank appeared for just a second onscreen via a flashback, and was played by a completely different actor. Now, as in Season 1, Frank is conjured up as a dangerous, ruthless drug lord. “They bringin’ in Frank Gathers,” an inmate says to Lucious on the basketball court, right before we cut to the big reveal of a shackled Frank descending from a dingy old school bus, complete with ominous orchestral soundtrack. “NO ONE touches Frank Gathers,” says another inmate in the following cut, as Lucious tries to approach. (This particular inmate sports a rose tattoo like that of Frank’s drug ring.) Even big bad Lucious is deferential to Frank when they are first reunited: “No, you the inspiration. You inspire fear.”
Except that Frank Gathers is played by Chris Rock, and Chris Rock does not inspire fear. When he steps off that bus, the comedian has a sort-of wild look in his eye, but mostly, he just looks like a zombie. When he proudly announces to his fellow inmates that Lucious used to deal drugs for him back in the day, his put upon “serious” voice sounds stiff. And he’s supposed to be menacing when casually eating a steak and forcing a confession out of the inmate who killed his associate for Cookie, but the moment falls flat. No amount of dramatic music or characters talking about how terrified they are of Frank could make you believe that this guy is a kingpin of the “Omar’s comin’” variety.
The issue is not that Rock is a comedian doing drama—there is, of course, no shortage of funny folks who have proven convincing in heavy roles. The problem is that Rock has never been much of an actor, period. While he’s a legend in the stand-up world, an incredibly smart writer and thinker, and an ideal voice-over actor (Everybody Hates Chris is an incredibly underrated mid-’00s sitcom), his work in onscreen scripted roles, most of which have been comedic, leaves much to be desired. Rock often looks uncomfortable when trying to act, whether the material is solid (Top Five) or terrible (I Think I Love My Wife). Sure, it's possible that Rock was cast as Frank as a kind of joke, precisely because he seems so ridiculous as a druglord. But instead of playing up the dissonance between his persona and the role, Empire has him play it totally straight.
Melodrama of the sort that Empire traffics in is really, really difficult to pull off well, and as such, it must be cast perfectly—which, up to this point, it generally has been. Terrence Howard isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he is convincing as an egotistical, maniacal mogul because he so unabashedly inhabits the character. Taraji P. Henson has played bold, vulnerable, abrasive, affectionate, and downright crazy in roles before Empire, and she does that all here, too. But Rock just seems pasted in from some other dramatic universe.
That doesn’t mean his character isn’t incredibly fun to watch—quite the opposite, actually. His miscasting makes for some hilarious television and helps tip the show even further into the realm of deliciously trashy camp than it was in Season 1, if you can believe such a thing is possible. (And his flippant delivery of the line “Bye” to Lucious, right before his demise is priceless.) But it does make me wonder, now that Empire has gotten so big that it can get any celebrity cameo it asks for, if the upcoming parade of guest stars will hurt the show’s cohesion a bit. Last season, every guest cameo was pitch-perfect and made sense, most notably Courtney Love essentially playing a version of Courtney Love. Rock’s role, meanwhile, feels less like a character and more like a “Wouldn’t it be crazy to have Chris Rock on the show?” stunt.