Roush Review: Empire Soars, While Rosewood Snores
Here's a closer look at the fall line-up for Wednesday, including a returning show and a premiere.
Empire Strikes Back
Say what you will—often at your own peril—about Cookie Lyon (the fabulous Taraji P. Henson), the ever-enterprising she-devil of Empire, but the lady has awesome instincts. "Dynasty. Hmm. That's a dope name," she muses in the second episode of the hit series' sizzling second season, as she considers going into business for herself.
This could be my favorite in-joke of the young TV season, because Empire has never been shy about staking its claim as the loud, proud and sensationally entertaining resurrection of the classic Dynasty-style primetime soap. With Cookie as its queen bee, an Alexis in animal prints and wild wigs, last season's most unexpected smash success bursts forth, after an agonizing six-month break, with energy to burn and oh-so-much story to tell.
Packing enough twists and reversals into a single episode that more timid shows might take half a year to accomplish, Empire is dizzying, dazzling and lovably deranged in its overheated depiction of the Lyon family's power struggles within a deluxe hip-hop kingdom. Even the bits that backfire—like the ridiculous stunt casting of Chris Rock as a supposedly-menacing prison drug lord—rarely diminish the glee with which we ride along on each hairpin curve.
"More attitude!" Cookie demands from a girl group she's coaching. Like that's even possible, as she takes on her currently jailed husband Lucious (a droll Terrence Howard), pitting son against parent, brother against brother, ex-wife against "Boo Boo Kitty" (Cookie's hilarious name for Lucious's former fiancée, Anika, the slinky Grace Gealey) in a true battle royal.
If Cookie is Empire's eye-flashing pulse, than her gay superstar son Jamal (the terrific Jussie Smollett) is its heartbeat. As the season progresses, with his attention unhappily divided between art and business while he assumes his mogul father's duties, Jamal's pain is palpable as he regards the emotional wreckage from his family's backstabbing shenanigans. His agony is our ecstasy, because even the glory days of Dynasty pale next to Empire's gaudy excesses.
Empire, returns Wednesday, Sept. 23, 9/8c, Fox
Rosewood: More Like Driftwood
The excitement building around Empire's long-awaited return—which included a spectacular screening, panel discussion and mini-concert at Carnegie Hall earlier this month—only makes it even more inexplicable and disappointing that Fox has paired this breakout series on Wednesdays with something as ordinary as the sunny, yet drearily formulaic, Rosewood.
If Empire jumps off the screen, Rosewood lays there like faded wallpaper, the kind of show you forget you're watching even while you're watching. Benign and banal, like a castoff from USA Network's "blue sky" period, Rosewood squanders the charismatic star presence of Morris Chestnut as Beaumont "Rosie" Rosewood, Jr., a cocky know-it-all medical examiner who considers himself "the Beethoven of private pathology." He offers his acute powers of observation and deduction—sound familiar?—to the Miami police, while plastering his handsome smiling face on billboards all over the city. Is there really a consumer market for his services? If there really an audience for something as mundane as Rosewood?
The show may not earn points for originality, but it does better on the diversity scale, pairing this African-American hunk with a feisty Latina detective, Annalise Villa (Jaina Lee Ortiz), who is somehow slow to succumb to Rosie's egotistical charms. She's observant enough to diagnose his obsession with death, which has much to do with his rare congenital heart defect that could signal eternal lights-out at any moment. You'd think this gimmick might make Rosie as interesting as Fox's legendary Dr. House. Think again. Rosewood is too forced in its banter, too predictable in its tired "Miami Nice" procedural storytelling, too uninspired for even a terrific actress like Lorraine Toussaint (a late cast addition as Rosewood's mother) to make much of an impression.
This is a wasted hour on a night when Fox should be taking full advantage of Empire's momentum. But then, maybe we could all use a power nap to prepare for the second coming of Cookie Lyon.
Rosewood, premieres Wednesday, Sept. 23, 8/7c, Fox
Questions? Ask Critic Matt Roush!
TV critic (and occasional TV therapist) Matt Roush answers viewer questions and concerns in his Ask Matt column each week. Wondering about plots, characters and twists on your fave shows? Submit your query to Matt via the form below: