'Empire' Boss Reflects on Season 2 "Frenzy," Previews "More Thoughtful" Return

"It's completely different rules this year," showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells THR.
Chuck Hodes/FOX

Going into its second season last September, Empire was without a doubt the hottest show on broadcast television thanks to its blockbuster ratings and even more jaw-dropping plot twists in season one. So naturally, everyone in the entertainment industry wanted a piece.

Season two welcomed the likes of Chris Rock, Alicia Keys, Ludacris, Marisa Tomei, Ne-Yo, Rosie O'Donnell, Lenny Kravitz, Nicole Richie, Andre Leon Talley, Al Sharpton and so on. The result was a jam-packed call sheet that drew criticism from both viewers and insiders for taking the focus away from the core characters.

"In season two, there was this kind of frenzy to bring on all of these exciting people onto the show and we were reaching to figure out how to write for them, how to incorporate them into our stories," showrunner Ilene Chaiken tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's completely different rules this year."

It's a course-correction Chaiken and the writers began mid-way through season two after the hip-hop drama came back from a three-month long hiatus in March. Tomei and recurring favorite Naomi Campbell were killed off in the midseason premiere just as the show attempted to reunite the warring exes Lucious (Terrence Howard) and Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) against common enemies.

"We're being rigorous with ourselves to follow our stories through, to keep stories alive and to pay them off and to take our time really exploring all of these stories that we've put in motion," Chaiken says.

Those common enemies would be FBI agent Tariq (Morocco Omari), who is investigating the Lyon family and who happens to be Lucious' half-brother. The other is Shine (Xzibit), a gangster rapper from Lucious' past. Known for his less-than-legal extracurriculars, Shine becomes determined to get back in with Lucious and Empire. Both were introduced at the end of season two and come back – along with Bre-Z, who plays rapper Freda Gatz – as series regulars for the third season.

"Shine and Tariq are both characters whose stories are Lyon family stories," Chaiken says. "They're right in the thick of our action and our themes and our issues. I think telling stories about the family doesn't mean that there's nobody else in our world, it's simply about people who come into our world and affect the outcome. We're continuing stories that we've began in season two, particularly in the finale of season two, and they really play throughout the entire year."

Chaiken insists that viewers shouldn't be worried about a potential season two rehash despite Empire's growing ensemble, which now stands at 13 series regulars.

"It feels like we have fewer characters and the characters that are in the world of Empire all are there with purpose. I don’t feel, as I quite honestly did occasionally in the past, that I have to service ancillary characters and storylines and then it takes us away from things that I think our audience really cares about and comes to Empire for," she continues. "I feel like we are really right there in our sweet spot with these new characters and the stories that they're involved with."

That philosophy also extends to upcoming guest stars, which includes one-off appearances by Mariah Carey and French Montana, as well as Taye Diggs and Phylicia Rashad in recurring roles.

"Every single story and every single character in Empire in season three started in the writer's room with a story we were telling and a role then was cast. We're not doing any stunt casting, we’re not jumping through any hoops to figure out how to use some fabulous guest star," Chaiken says.

"We're telling our stories and saying, 'Oh, wow, wouldn't it be great to have Mariah Carey do that?' Yes, we wanted Mariah on the show. Mariah wanted to be on it, and Lee wanted Mariah on the show and we came up to a moment where we said, 'And now we need a superstar to tell this story and to make it real, and Lee said, 'Could this be Mariah?' And we said, 'Absolutely.' And then he made it happen."

The result is a third season that Chaiken says is not only more focused, but also more grounded – at least as grounded as a primetime soap can be.

"I don't want to say it's slower; it's more thoughtful," she says. "It's more attentive to character and detail, and we found that we've got stories that we are really excited about and that we think are compelling. We're not having to reach to what some people might have thought were slightly ludicrous places to find our big moments. They're coming out of story, they're coming out of character and they are consistent with these stories that we've begun."

Empire returns Wednesday, Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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