The legal cloud of Jussie Smollett's indictment hangs over "Empire" as the series returns with new episodes today, raising questions as to whether that uncertainty and off-screen drama will derail the Fox primetime soap — or perversely, temporarily spur interest in it.
The show launches the second half of its 18-episode season the same week that Smollett, who plays the character of Jamal, appeared in court, having been indicted on 16 felony counts for allegedly staging an attack on himself and subsequently providing false information to the police.
Smollett has denied the charges. On Tuesday, he attended a hearing regarding whether to allow cameras in the courtroom.
The network has already announced that the actor will be left out of the last two episodes to "avoid further disruption on set," although it's unclear how his absence will be explained. That means the seventh hour in this latest run could wind up being his character's last on the series. The program has yet to be renewed for next season, a decision Fox won't have to officially make until May.
The producers initially expressed support for Smollett. After he was charged, they called the allegations "disturbing," saying in a statement that Smollett is "an important member of our 'Empire' family," adding that "we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out."
As always, "Empire" remains an ensemble show, with the juiciest plots generally reserved for Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard.
Still, Jamal is a major character and has a significant storyline as these new episodes get underway. His relationship with Kai (Toby Onwumere) has placed him between the journalist and his family, in what amounts to a test of his loyalties.
A broader plot focuses on the discovery in the show's fall cliffhanger that antagonist Jeff Kingsley (A.Z. Kelsey) is also Lucious' son, presenting the latest challenge to the musical Lyons family dynasty.
Once a major hit, the audience for "Empire" has declined markedly from its heyday; nevertheless, it remains Fox's second-most-watched drama in key demographics. Per Nielsen data, same-day ratings averaged about 5 million viewers through the first half of the season, which ended in December.
The coverage of Smollett's case has unfolded during a scheduled hiatus. Fox splits the season into two parts so that the episodes can play without interruption through the spring.
As if the Smollett situation weren't distraction enough, a screener for the latest episode also contains an off-hand reference to dancing like Michael Jackson during a musical number by Bryshere Y. Gray, who plays Hakeem -- a fleeting moment that nevertheless might feel ill-timed in the wake of the HBO documentary "Leaving Neverland."
"Empire" returns March 13 at 8 p.m. on Fox.