Empire: Jussie Smollett’s send-off was an imperfect – and quick – moment

Shows have struggled with ‘cancelling’ their fallen stars; the Fox show marked the departure with a small throwaway line

How do we say goodbye to someone who has been cancelled?

This is the question the popular Fox TV show Empire struggled with last night, during the premiere of its finale season.

We all know the bizarre chain of events by now. Jussie Smollett, who plays Jamal Lyon in the series, ignited media and legal chaos after reporting to be the victim of a hate crime late one night in Chicago. The investigation that followed was confusing, to say the least. Alleged payments to orchestrate the attack, high-octane press conferences, FBI involvement. Then, out of nowhere, the Chicago police department dropped its charges against Smollett. To this day, there is no clear understanding if he was lying about the hate crime or not. The case just fizzled out. And Smollett disappeared from the public eye.

Jamal Lyon suffered a similarly anticlimactic departure on Empire. Last night, the show proceeded as if there had never been a Jamal Lyon.

Becky, played by Gabourey Sidibe, broached the subject of Jamal’s absence with a throwaway line.

“Jamal and I used to wear these to our sleepovers all the time,” she told Jamal’s mother Cookie (played by Taraji P Henson). “No wonder that boy ran off to London,” Cookie responded. “I really miss him. Don’t get me started. I miss him so much.”

And that was it.

It was a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. And whether intended or not, the awkward, half-assed goodbye shone a light on how imperfect – and unfulfilling – “cancelling” a celebrity can be. Jamal and Jussie are gone. Now what?

Other shows have and continue to struggle with what to do after their prominent stars fall. There’s the Empire method: move on and pretend nothing ever happened. And then there’s the Transparent method: lean into the drama.

Jill Soloway, the creator of Transparent, killed off Jeffrey Tambor’s character after the actor was accused of sexual misconduct and harassment on set. The goodbye to Tambor’s character (premiering on Amazon Prime on 27 September) is an irreverent and decidedly unsentimental affair. A wacky, feature-length musical that’s elicited a lot of head-scratching from critics.

“I think because of all the chaos – and all of the ways in which our show had to re-examine who we were – having a musical gave us a new path forward, a new reason to be,” Soloway told Variety in an interview. “This isn’t just like putting a button on the series. It’s kind of like transitioning – twirling and flying into a new direction.”

Yet Smollett’s departure feels different in one important way from the send-offs of actors like Jeffrey Tambor. Smollett is an openly gay black man. There aren’t too many of those in Hollywood. And saying goodbye to his character also feels like saying goodbye to a vital piece of queer representation.

Smollett’s character sparked important conversations about the complexities of being black and gay in America when the show first premiered in 2015.

“[Jamal] was the heart of our show, and now it’s like our show is on a heart and lung bypass machine, because the heart is gone,” Terrence Howard, who plays Jamal’s father on Empire, told James Corden after the season premiere last night. “But we’re still hoping that there’s gonna be a transplant and hoping it’ll come back together.”

Thankfully, black queer representation in TV is moving into new and exciting places. There’s the breakout success of Pose a show populated with a smorgasbord of black queer characters – and the premiere of the reality show Styling Hollywood, which has the affluent married couple of Jason Bolden (a noted stylist) and Adair Curtis (a noted interior designer) as its stars.

Perhaps the reason no one is heavily mourning the loss of Jamal and Jussie for black LGBT representation is because we (finally) have better replacements.


André Wheeler in New York

The GuardianTramp

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