The decline of an ‘Empire’

Once-popular Fox show suffers dip in ratings

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The drop in "Empire"'s ratings could be in part due to the controversy surrounding former actor Jussie Smollett.

The once hit Fox television show “Empire” returned for its spring premiere March 13. In the premiere, viewers will want for nothing in the drama department — but unanswered questions remain about the direction of the plot and the future of the show as a whole. These questions stem from the media storm surrounding one of the actors on the show — Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett).

Recently, Jussie Smollett ran into trouble with the law for allegedly fabricating a hate crime. He plead not guilty to 16 counts of disorderly conduct March 14, and the cast and crew of “Empire” came forward to say Smollett will not appear in the final two episodes of the fifth season. 

However, his character is still present in episodes leading to the final two. The return of the show and the presence of Jussie on “Empire” has garnered mix feelings from audiences. Many found it ironic how in the spring premiere, Jamal and his fiancé, Kai (Toby Onwumere), break up over the illegal activities his family chooses to partake in — meanwhile, Jussie Smollett left the show due to alleged illegal activity of his own. The ratings for the show reflect this uneasiness amongst viewers. Historically, the episode that followed a winter finale would bring an increase in ratings. With the current season, however, there was a drop. 

It is clear viewers are losing interest in “Empire,” but a big question remains — why? Is it because of the scandal surrounding Smollett, or just the content of the show? One has to wonder, if the problem is Smollett, how will the dynamic of the show change without his character? His character tended to act as the moral compass for the rest of the Lyon family. Without him, the show lacks characters who have truly good intentions.

That said, the show may be flailing for other reasons outside of Smollett. Without him, there still remains a multitude of seasoned actors on the show, including the dynamic Taraji P. Henson. She consistently delivers a moving performance as Cookie, and her acting brings layers and depth to a character viewers might otherwise consider a stereotypical reduction of black women to the angry black woman trope. Yet even with superb acting from the likes of Henson and the rest of the cast, it feels like for the last two seasons the plot of the show has lost focus. 

Previously, the show centered on the Lyon family, the struggles of their past and managing Empire Records. Now, the writing has a ridiculous number of subplots. For instance, Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) becoming an amputee and falling in love with his nurse, who later kidnaps him. Not only is this plot far removed from anything having to do with the original plot of the show, but the effects of this storyline have not carried over into the fifth season, as if the plot point was added for the sake of adding drama rather than furthering the story.

Whatever the reason behind the slow decline of the show, one hopes it can whip itself into shape soon. In a time where society is becoming increasingly more aware of representation in television as something not only important but necessary, “Empire” is a piece of media that needs to stay on air. It stars a predominantly black cast and is created, written, produced and directed by Lee Daniels, a gay, black man. The show has the opportunity to increase representation of different groups on television, but also can explore the intersections, emotions and politics between the LGBTQ and black community in an authentic and refreshing way. 

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