Technically, the definition of “jumping the shark” (at least, according to TVTropes.org), is when a long-running series “changes in a significant manner in an attempt to stay fresh.” Empire is not even halfway through its second season, approximately three full seasons fewer than Happy Days was when it inspired that infamous pop culture jibe in the first place. But the primetime soap runs through entire seasons’ worth of plots in any given episode on a regular basis, so I feel comfortable asking this question after Wednesday night’s episode: Has Empire officially jumped the shark?
“A High Hope for a Low Heaven” was the first truly bad episode of Empire. This is not in the “so bad, it’s good” tradition that Lee Daniels and his writers established from the very beginning, nor is it in the “so bad, it’s hilarious” manner that Chris Rock’s presence as a supposedly ruthless gangster presented in the Season 2 premiere. Instead, everything seemed off, from the pacing to the performances to the dizzying editing and camerawork—and while all of that was happening, the plot only spun more and more out of control, making the viewing experience confounding and difficult to sit through.
The very end of the last episode saw Hakeem kidnapped by unknown assailants while jogging, so of course he’s returned to the family within the first 13 minutes of this week’s episode. But that’s not before he’s beaten and forced to send messages to Lucious and Cookie letting them know that he’s still alive and his captors will release him if they pay a ransom. Pretty quickly, he’s set free, bruised and disoriented, and his first order of business is to stumble up to Anika as she heads into her apartment and thrust himself upon her—and apparently, she’s into it, because she returns the gesture despite the two of them having ended things long ago. Why does this happen? Ostensibly, it’s Hakeem acting out after a traumatic experience, but as with Andre’s bipolar disorder and his “curing” of it through religion, Empire treats his condition in a clumsy manner, in this case with tawdry, disorienting edits aspiring to the levels of something like Fight Club. It doesn’t help that Bryshere Gray isn’t the strongest actor of the bunch; his line-delivery, frequently wooden but passable, only appears worse when he’s forced to tackle PTSD as he does here.
Elsewhere, the awkward insertion of religion continues when Andre interviews a new artist whose stage name, J Poppa, just happens to be full of religious references (“J” stands for his name, Job, while Poppa is a shoutout to his grandfather, a pastor); Jamal rehearses what must be his eighth mushy power ballad this season (Seriously, give the dude some club bangers! Preferably ones that don’t involve Pitbull); and save for a bold moment facing down her son’s captors, Taraji P. Henson continues her scale-back from breakout star to ensemble player, displaying a more toned-down version of the spark that made Cookie such an iconic character. When Lucious threatens Hakeem, all she can say in her initial response is a timid, “Um … shut up—Lucious!” Her witty barbs have gotten fewer and farther between as each episode carries on.
All of this and plenty more amounts to an episode in which everyone looks as if they’re flailing, unsure for the first time of their characters’ own motivations in any given moment. Whereas once the plotlines were abundant yet still contained and relatively easy to follow (that is, if they weren’t ditched all together), Empire seems to have ramped up the convolution to an imperceptible level. Perhaps this stems from the pressure of living up to the novelty of its groundbreaking first season, and having to deliver on 18 episodes instead of 12. Perhaps a show like Empire isn’t built to sustain a long run, and a burnout is inevitable. Still, in keeping with this week’s episode title, I hold out hope that this low point turns out to be an anomaly—even truly great series have bad moments once in a while.
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