“Empire” returns for another season – minus Jussie Smollett

Even though Disney picked up an option on Smollett’s contract, his exit from Chicago likely means he’s done with the show

Even though its renewal was really never in doubt, the future of Empire is secured – but is down one cast member – and probably for good.

Fox announced Tuesday the sixth-season renewal of Empire, likely for a full season of eighteen episodes. But in an interesting twist, cast member Jussie Smollett – who was charged with a hate crime hoax – had his option for the season picked up, but will not appear in the show “for now”.

The news came in a joint press release with now-Disney owned 20th Century Fox Television and Fox Corporation. “By mutual agreement, the studio has negotiated an extension to Jussie Smollett’s option for Season 6, but at this time there are no plans for the character of Jamal to return to Empire.”

This means Smolett – who plays middle son Jamal Lyon on the show – could return, but the producers want to see how his legal troubles play out. As you recall, all charges were dropped by the Cook County State Attorney’s office in a very controversial move, but Smollett was sued by the city and still faces an FBI investigation over mail-tampering charges.

But it looks like his tenure on the show as a full-time cast member is done – the Sun-Times reports Smolett has moved out of the Chicago area and his legal team is blocking a move to have him appear in court Thursday. In other words, Smolett is being paid not to show up for work and if Empire is renewed for a seventh season, odds are he would not be back.

Smollett was written out of the last two episodes of the season, which aired starting last night (Smollett’s name was still in the credits.) His character was married off and on his honeymoon, as the episode briefly referenced. Don’t be surprised if his character moves “overseas” to be with his husband, who according to the storyline, lived out of the country.

Even though Empire’s ratings are down tremendously from its first season, it is still Fox’s second highest rated show in the 18-49 demo only behind 9-1-1. And given ratings for most broadcast primetime programs are under a 1.5 rating, Empire’s 1.2 season average actually looks pretty good, despite not receiving any ratings boost from the Smollett saga.

And don’t forget – even though ratings are diminished, Empire is still a strong draw among African-American audiences.

While Smollett’s disappearance from the series may upset a few of the show’s fans, his absence would likely not have any impact on ratings, if any. Reaction has been muted so far – a very good thing given all the rhetoric over the last few months. As this blog pointed out, conservative backlash over Smollett’s crime could have prompted Fox Corp. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch to force him out, but it seems Smollett agreed to take an undetermined “leave of absence” – one from the looks of things is permanent.

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