We all know what The O.C. Effect—sometimes referred to by television professionals as Cohen’s Law—is, right? If not, a brief recap. The O.C. debuted in the summer of 2003 with a seven episode order and a premiere that accrued ratings and buzz that even the thirsty execs at FOX probably didn’t predict. Then the following weeks did even bigger. The show seized the zeitgeist. Seven summertime episodes (do remember, this is when any show to be taken seriously aired fall through spring) turned into a full 22-episode true blue TV season. FOX kept ordering episodes and by the time The O.C.’s first season officially concluded, it consisted of a whopping twenty-seven episodes. That’s a ton of story to fill and boy did they—core couples were formed, broke up and got back together; marriages ended and new ones began; Mrs. Robinson-esque flings were had; Chrismukkah was invented; an instant-classic psycho named Oliver got like a full six-episode arc all to himself, and the TV-watching streets were totally hooked.
Sound familiar? Twelve years later a new melodrama on FOX is charting the same course. After steadily dominating the spring, and breaking one ratings record after another, Empire was declared thee new blockbuster series. It blew through seemingly the same amount of story that The O.C. did over 27 episodes...instead in 12. Now, after a healthy six months off (rarely are episode orders extended these days), it’s back. And the two words on everyone’s mind as we head into tonight’s premiere, are, inevitably: 'sophomore slump.' And it's facing it on two counts: the original music has it's own, "Drip Drop" reputation to live up to as much as the narrative does. But maybe those words should be 'The O.C.,' a classic first season turned cautionary tale for all breakneck-paced melodramas on every network. The second season’s premiere was broadcast live in fucking Times Square. Attention wasn’t the problem...it was what the show did with it. In a struggle to keep up with expectations but also exceed and excel, the story suffered. Season 2 is fine, but no arc, subplot nor new character hit quite like anything from season 1, not even Marissa Cooper’s episode-and-a-half bi-curiosity opposite Olivia Wilde. Things got really dire in season 3, but 2 is seen as the beginning of the end. Newport Beach grand opening, and grand closing, just like that.
Now, all eyes are peeled to Empire not just for the return of a beloved show, but ostensibly, with morbid curiosity to see if it will do the same. The warning signs of going too big to see clearly are already there. Approximately 983 household name actors and musicians have announced cameos or recurring guest star arcs. The episode order has been expanded to 18. The season 1 finale alone reshuffled the show and its characters’ status quo at least 8 times. Is Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s golden empire structurally sound? Or will they keep adding wings to the building until it becomes a big, self-indulgent maze that viewers will quickly lose interest in?
It’s too early to tell—and I’ve seen the first three episodes. What I can offer, though, is that the premiere and most of the the two, slower-paced episodes that follow are still the same fun, shamelessly absurd guilty pleasure we loved (or loved to ridicule) back in the spring. Effort is being made: Danny Strong claims he’s using the longer season as an excuse to move a bit slower. The Lyon family’s behavior and all surrounding them is still ridiculously over-the-top, and the tone still inconsistent, even for a nighttime soap opera. But the way the premiere ties back to a story thread from early season 1 that was blatantly left hanging suggests Strong and his writers read every complaint and criticism in the suggestion box.
But for every Chris Rock cameo there is, for example, Don Lemon, which, why? For every fun meta reference like Cookie's passing response to 50 Cent’s shots at the show IRL, there are 17 more that just feel forced and awkward. It tries to be too connected, citing Lil Wayne's current label issues and incorporating a new female rapper who recalls Dej Loaf. And yet, it’s still painfully clear no one involved with writing the show is really of the hip-hop culture to begin with. Lookout for the new song "Snitch Bitch" which plays like a Lonely Island parody so much so that this show's rap credibility—or total lack thereof, should never be questioned again. I never took this show seriously, but I can respect its soapy appeal. Or at the very least laugh at it instead of with, like an amazingly ridiculous, absolutely hilarious Lucious prison-sequence that comes mid-episode 2. (You’ll know it when you see it, and I expect gifs of Terrence Howard immediately after it airs.)
But even guilty pleasures have to uphold a standard of quality. And if a slip turns into a full-on stumble? Well, TV is more cutthroat now than it was in the late-aughts. Unlike The O.C., Empire may not be given a chance to get back up. All eyez on the Lyons.