‘Empire’ to end after next season with no plans for Jussie Smollett to return

The reign of Empire on Fox is coming to an end next year. Just two weeks after the Charlie Collier-run Fox Entertainment renewed Lee Daniels and Danny Strong’s hip hop drama for a sixth season and guided Jussie Smollett toward the exit door, it was announced Monday during Fox’s pre-upfront call that the self-described “groundbreaking cultural phenomenon” will be canceled once Season 6 is done next year.

“We are turning the final season into a large TV event — we are trying to go out guns a-blazing,” Collier said on the call of Empire‘s last season, which will be 20 episodes. “You allow fans to lean in and have the ending they deserve.”

Questioned about the possibility that the legally challenged Smollett could return for the final season, Collier dodged and replied with language reminiscent of last month’s press release. “There’s an option to have Jussie in the series but we have no plans for that,” he said, noting that the writers room for Season 6 hasn’t been opened yet.

Dropped less than a week after the fifth season of Empire wrapped up with its Casablanca-ish finaleMonday’s news also included the shifting of the Chicago-filmed series back to its original Tuesday 9 PM slot, meaning a primetime team-up with an also-moved The Resident and its third season.

The shift to Tuesdays also puts the already ratings-bedeviled Empire up against NBC’s heavy hitter This Is Us.

On the up side for fans of the series led by Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, planning for the resetting sixth season is still very much in the early stages, as Collier essentially said today and showrunner Brett Mahoney told me on May 8. It leaves plenty of time to craft a proper conclusion.

The axing of Empire follows the cancellation of co-creator Daniels’ 20th Century Fox TV produced Star on May 10 after three seasons; this morning, Collier called the decision “difficult.” Legal drama Proven Innocent, the midseason replacement executive produced by Strong and Disney-owned 20th Century Fox TV, was pink slipped by Fox after one season on May 11.

Caught between lower than expected ratings and the costs of doing business with a former corporate sibling, the Star and Proven Innocent cancellations, painful as they were for those concerned, were pretty straightforward.

Amidst other long-in-the-tooth issues, Empire was pummeled this year by ratings lows and the ever-spiraling controversy over the January 29 presumed hate crime Smollett is now alleged to have perpetrated against himself.

Empire

Things were still looking good several weeks ago for a longer run when options for key cast like Lyon matriarch Cookie (Henson), patriarch Lucious (Howard), on-screen sons Bryshere Y. Gray and Trai Byers, and Gabourey Sidibe and Nicole Ari Parker were sewed up last month for another season, I hear.

As for Smollett, who has played Jamal Lyon on the series since its early 2015 debut, Fox Entertainment and now Disney-owned 20th Century Fox TV “negotiated an extension to Jussie Smollett’s option for Season 6.”

However, with Jamal already written out of the final two episodes of Season 5 months ago as the situation around him grew more convoluted, the network and the studio added on April 30 that “at this time there are no plans for the character of Jamal to return to Empire.”

Now there are no more plans for Empire to return to Fox beyond its next upcoming cycle, a fact that would have seemed absurd just a few years ago. In its first and second seasons, the  blockbuster drew big number from almost every facet. In fact, breaking the status quo of steady decline, for a while Empire was on a winning trajectory of growing almost every week in the ratings to hit new highs.

While currently Fox’s second best-performing drama after 9-1-1, the heights of those early days have long since passed. Still, today’s cancellation comes as a bit of a surprise after the March 20 promotional spotlight Fox cast on the show once the $71.3 billion acquisition by Disney went through.

Ultimately, having scored more seasons than most in today’s Peak TV era, Empire fell prey to forces primarily outside its own small-screen borders, felled in part by a combination of the impact of streaming services and delayed viewing on the Big 4 ratings and Disney’s recently hoovering up of primary Fox assets like the TCFTV studio.

Pour into that a strategic shift as the Murdoch-owned Fox network solidified an early decision to fill a fair chunk of its two hours a night of primetime programming with high-cost and high-return sports like the NFL and WWE’s Smackdown.

Landing on that increasing rickety structure of Empire‘s future was the Smollett assault scandal that tumbled right into the cutthroat politics of Chicago.

Insisting on his innocence in the early morning incident in January, Smollett on March 26 a pulled a lucky straw with overwhelmed prosecutors that saw 16 felony charges erased and his case sealed. The actor was facing years behind bars for supposedly staging a racial and homophobic  attack on himself. Instead, he forfeited a $10,000 bond and was given credit for a stint of 20 hours of community service.

An almost immediate storm of protest rose up from the likes of early and empathic supporter Donald Trump, soon-to-be ex-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, plus the Chicago PD. First Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Joseph Magats quickly tried to deflect by telling local media he believed Smollett was guilty of staging the attack himself.

Handed the case after Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx recused herself under what has become increasing criticism, Magats also said the deal and the sealing of the case did not exonerate Smollett. It was a PR nightmare no one was really ever waking up from.

Since then, new lawsuits have gone back and forth, with the city going after Smollett when the actor declined to repay $130,000 for the costs of the investigation. Alleged attack collaborators Ola and Abel Osundairo sued Smollett’s lawyers Mark Geragos and Tina Glandian for defamation on April 23.

As Deadline exclusively revealed on April 24, Smollett received open backing from Henson, Howard and other key castmates in a pleading letter advocating for Smollett and his character’s return to Empire for Season 6. Politely received by Collier, Daniels ,Strong, Disney TV Studios and ABC Entertainment chair Dana Walden and Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn, the lengthy April 19 letter wasn’t enough, as we now know.

Empire‘s sixth and final season is presumed to launch in mid-September

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