“Empire“ is back next week after a too-long hiatus, and after gay character Jamal Lyons (Jussie Smollett) slept with his music idol—who happens to be a woman (Skye, played by Alicia Keys)—I had many, many questions.
While I'm always concerned when writers craft a story where a character we know as gay "backslides" into a heterosexual romance or, as Jamal said, had a one-time hookup, I want to believe there was a good reason for this. On a grand scale, to portray sexuality as fluid is a good thing in that it shows people that it's not always black or white. However, if taken the wrong way, it can also send a message that gay people can be "fixed" with the right person of the opposite sex. Thankfully, in the first two episodes back, "Empire" doesn't shy away with the downside of the hetero turn in Jamal's story.
Out executive producer Ilene Chaiken, who created the lesbian drama “The L Word,” answered questions from the press earlier this week about the new episodes and, of course, I had to ask about one major part of Jamal’s hookup on the show. Why didn’t we see the Jamal/Skye hookup? What was the point to it happening off-screen if it was going to send such ripple effects through the character and the show?
My guess would be that maybe the writers knew they were in touchy territory and chose to have it happen off-screen, but that’s just my opinion.
In Chaiken's words, as to the choice: "We didn't think it was necessary to see it happen. [The kiss between Jamal and Skye] was the last moment of the episode, and it's the way that we often do our last moments-kind of a big, gasp-worthy moment in which a lot of things are implicit. Sometimes we do sex implicitly."
Here’s a catch-up on Jamal’s story so far in season two:
In the first two return episodes, I have to commend the writers for not shying from talking about Jamal’s sleeping with Skye. In fact, the public is aware of the liaison and besides confusing some people, like his mother Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), Jamal also takes a lot of heat from the gay community. In fact, a hilarious scene in the second episode shows Jamal accosted by a group of gay protesters who accuse him of flip-flopping his sexuality. (You’ll see the moment in the clip posted above.)
And while Jamal tries to brush off the controversy by saying it's his life and he doesn't have to justify a hookup to anyone, it's clear the writers are not letting him off too easy. And, while I don't love the story to begin with, that is a wise move on their part.
Jamal also talks about "sexual fluidity," which is a phrase I hear used a lot on television these days. While it's easy to say that using that term is as much of a cop-out as declaring being on one side of the sexuality fence or another (bisexuality also gets the same judgment at times), I had to ask Chaiken about sexual fluidity applying to the "Empire" characters we'd label as straight, particularly the men of the show.
"I think that you never know where people are going to go in terms of their sexuality until they go there, and people often don't know themselves," Chaiken explained. "So, absolutely we could explore sexuality with other characters, not just with Jamal, and I'm sure we will."
And while I thought that Cookie was set to sleep with Marisa Tomei’s character earlier this season (instead, Anika did the deed, but, again, off camera), having established straight male characters like Lucious (Terrence Howard), Andre (Trai Beyers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Gray), this isn’t something I’m going to hold my breath waiting for.
“Empire” has often frustrated me across the board with its story choices for all the characters, and sometimes forgetting to keep a story authentic and instead go for the shock value, but I’ve come to at least try to accept the show for what it is. Frustrations or not, the show has done a lot to integrate a story of a man’s homosexuality equally with the heterosexual storylines and has also made Luscious an example of how homophobia is very, very wrong.
In short, while always a mixed bag (and the music segments still rock), “Empire” is still one of the more exciting offerings on television.
“Empire” returns Wednesday, March 30 at 9 pm on FOX.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.