A weekly feature in which we spotlight shining stars
THE PERFORMER | Jussie Smollett
THE SHOW | Empire
THE EPISODE | “Die But Once/Who I Am” (March 18, 2015)
THE PERFORMANCE | Empire‘s two-hour Season 1 finale was a whirlwind of OMG plot twists — murder! arrests! hookups! catfights! — but it was Jussie Smollett’s transformation of middle son Jamal from sensitive R&B singer to hard-charging heir to his father’s crown that truly took our breath away.
The fireworks began as Jamal returned with his homophobic father Lucious to the Philadelphia apartment where he’d spent so much of his tortured childhood. Ignoring Lucious’ cheap taunts — “You want me to throw your ass in the trashcan again?” — Smollett kept Jamal steely, with just a glint of pride in his eyes now that his father was turning to him for help in conquering a crippling case of writer’s block. It’s no small task to turn the mechanics of songwriting into explosive drama, but that’s exactly what went down as Jamal and Lucious traded words and melody to the ear-wormy “Nothing to Lose” — Smollett’s face registering the release of his character’s anger and the fresh surge of joy from finally earning his father’s respect.
Later, though, as Jamal set out to complete the final hurdle to earning his place as next-in-line to the Empire CEO position, Smollett unlocked another aspect of his character passed down from Lucious: Monstrous, take-no-prisoners ambition. Hanging rival label chief Billy Beretti (Judd Nelson) over a high-rise balcony and demanding the return of his father’s recording masters, the typically kind-hearted Jamal looked downright sociopathic, snarling to his terrified rival, “My daddy thinks I’m a killer. I think he’s right.” We’re not sure exactly how dark Jamal’s Season 2 arc might go, but Smollett’s performance this week has us excited to find out.
HONORABLE MENTION | Mindy Kaling was born to play a pregnant Mindy Lahiri. As the Mindy Project protagonist’s due date approaches, Kaling excels at exploring the mindset of the increasingly unglued OB-GYN. This week, she played Mindy’s expanding waistline both for yuks (the sight gag of her trying to shimmy into too-small jeans was one to which most women can relate) and real emotion (Mindy’s lament about never being able to lose the baby weight? No joke, right ladies? The struggle is real). The best part: Throughout, it was very easy to remember that this is the same woman who once drunkenly rode a bicycle into a pool. Nicely (and zanily) played, Kaling.
HONORABLE MENTION | On Tuesday’s The Flash, Dr. Wells (AKA Reverse-Flash) stabbed Cisco through the chest, killing him, but we were the ones who were gut-punched thanks to Carlos Valdes’ emotional performance as he confronted the man who was once his mentor. After more than half a season of stealing scenes with his funny quips, Valdes stole our hearts — and then crushed them just as Dr. Wells crushed his own. And the fact that the actor’s tears weren’t scripted only makes us even more excited to see where Valdes’ instincts will lead Cisco next.
HONORABLE MENTION | On Episodes, Kathleen Rose Perkins’ impeccable comedic timing has helped craft one of TV’s great supporting characters. As the self-absorbed Carol Rance, her fall from grace in Sunday’s finale was the embodiment of a beautiful disaster as she lost her girlfriend and blew up her career in one fell swoop. Perkins didn’t need words to exude Carol’s feelings amidst the downfall, letting a series of suggestive facial expressions do all the talking. The often shameless character was at her lowest of lows as she realized there was no job for her at The CW, but Perkins’ vulnerable performance showcased the actress at her best.
Which performances rocked your TV this week? Tell us in the comments!