“I don’t know if you’ve been reading the blogs and all that foolishness, but it’s kind of been a tough week,” says Jussie Smollett as his character, Jamal Lyon, in Wednesday’s episode of Empire.
Of course, the statement rings true for the embattled actor on- and off-screen. In Fox’s primetime soap, Jamal is torn between choosing his journalist fiancé or his morally corrupt family; but, in a rare instance for the always dramatic Empire, tensions are even higher behind the scenes, as Smollett faces 16 counts of disorderly conduct, including filing a false police report—a Class 4 felony offense.
Empire returned tonight in its first episode since the Chicago Police Department initially considered Smollett the victim of a racist, homophobic attack, and is now accusing him of staging a hate crime for publicity. Smollett maintains his innocence and will appear in court on Thursday.
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson alleges Smollett paid $3,500 for two Empire extras, brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo, to stage the “attack” in order to boost his status on the show. “The stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary. So he concocted a story about being attacked,” Johnson said in a February press conference. Smollett’s lawyers later disputed the claim to CNN, saying Smollett is the victim of a “media lynching,” and claimed that the $3,500 check was for personal training.
Wednesday’s episode makes zero mention of the allegations, sticking to business as usual with its own scandalous storyline of a data breach and family extortion. Smollett features prominently in the episode, even performing two musical numbers. In the first, Jamal returns to his high school alma mater to perform “Jump,” an anthem that opens with the verse, “I’m probably, I’m probably going through some battles, yeah / I’m probably, I’m probably gonna have to fight / But no, it ain’t nothing that I can’t handle / Eventually, I will be alright.”
Fox cut Smollett from the final two episodes of the season which are still being filmed, and showrunner Brett Mahoney spoke with Entertainment Weekly this week on the tough choice to remove him: “It was a very difficult decision, but I think in terms of allowing the cast and the crew to really get the work done without a great deal of disruption in terms of the day-to-day and the stress of the day-to-day, and, in addition, allowing Jussie the time to really deal with what he’s been confronted with and allow him the time to focus and prepare his case, this seems like the logical decision to make.” It’s unclear how long Smollett will be gone.
Mahoney wouldn’t confirm rumors that Smollett’s scandal has put Empire’s future in jeopardy. However, TMZ is reporting that some production members are feeling anxiety on set. Mahoney did acknowledge the weight of the case is palpable to those working on the show, saying, “Everyone is really focused on getting these episodes done, despite everything that is going on around us. Also, I don’t really see it as something that is dividing people, more like bringing people together, bringing the cast and crew together in terms of let’s get this done.”
Empire has yet to be renewed for Season 6, though that isn’t out of the norm. Fox didn’t renew Season 5 until May of last year. Amid the possible outcomes should the show be renewed, TVLine reports creator Lee Daniels is considering recasting the character of Jamal, rumored to be loosely based on himself (Daniels is also a gay black artist). Fox has not commented on the speculation, though it’s also not unprecedented for a network to recast a supporting character. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air famously swapped out Aunt Vivs just as Roseanne had two Beckys.
For now, Fox will continue to air episodes of Empire on Wednesday nights and has come out strong in support of Smollett. They issued their most recent statement in February, saying, “Jussie Smollett continues to be a consummate professional on set and as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show.”