Fueled by ongoing outrage from outgoing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and others, the growing blast radius from the controversial decision yesterday by state prosecutors finds the home of Empire in a tricky position over what to do with the series and one of its stars.
It’s a position that seems headed towards Empire coming back for another season, but most likely without Smollett, who has always claimed and continues to insist that he is innocent.
“Things are so unclear and there is a feeling that this isn’t over, that there’s more to come,” said an insider of the actor’s legal circumstances and ramifications for Empire. Coming off the close of the $71.3 billion Disney deal and a self-described fresh start on March 20, the new Fox Entertainment now run by Charlie Collier is looking at public opinion and some hard upcoming deadlines that along with Windy City politics may force its hand.
For one thing, while the 16 felony charges (and potentially years behind bars) Smollett faced for allegedly staging a racist and homophobic attack on himself on January 29 are now gone and the case sealed, the actor is still being investigated in a federal probe over a potentially self-penned, hate-filled letter that arrived on the Empire set earlier this year.
“The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is working closely with our law enforcement partners on this investigation,” the USPS said Wednesday about the case, which could see Smollett face 5-20 years in jail. “We are unable to provide any additional comment at this time.”
Someone providing a lot of comment in the past 24 hours since Smollett was let off is Emanuel. Leaving office in May after current Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle or ex-federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot win the April 2 Chicago mayoral election, Emanuel has called Smollett’s apparent actions an “abomination.”
In a press conference on Tuesday with the Superintendent of the Chicago PD by his side, Emanuel declared that the State’s Attorney’s decision to drop the case — with the actor getting 16 hours of already-served community service and forfeiting a $10,000 bond — was a “whitewash of justice.” Today on Good Morning America, he asserted that Smollett received special treatment because he’s “a person of influence.”
In fact, even as prosecutors maintain Smollett was likely guilty and received a deal often struck in cases involving nonviolent crimes, the acerbic brother of WME kingpin Ari Emanuel is now considering going after the actor in court, I hear. Whether or not another federal investigation is actually opened by Chicago’s U.S. Attorney John Lausch, the mayor wants to see the city properly compensated for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs the cops are estimated to have spent on Smollett’s case.
Along with the Chicago police union angling for a probe into Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and her office’s handling of the case, the whole situation makes Smollett persona non grata in Chicago city limits, and certainly a major distraction for Empire and Fox.
Already written out of the final two episodes of the series’ current fifth season, Smollett’s option is up in late June. That gives the now Disney-owned 20th Century Fox TV and the Lachlan Murdoch-run Fox network some time to gauge which way the wind is blowing and, as one source said, “cut their losses if need be” by opting not to bring Smollett back.
At the same time, from the prominence the hip hop drama from Lee Daniels and Danny Strong had in the sizzle reel the so-called New Fox ran during Empire last week, it is clear the series is a strong contender to come back for at least one more season. Although no formal announcement needs to be made on an Empire renewal before mid-May, sources close to the series tell me that with the importance of the property to the revitalized network, there will be “almost certainly” be more of the Lyon clan on Fox’s airwaves.
Also looking strong to come back with Empire is showrunner Brett Mahoney. The exec producer has been a strong supporter of Smollett through the various iterations of this “potential hate crime” – from the alleged assault, to suspicions of what really happened, Smollett’s eventual arrest and subsequent charges — his role on the Empire has strong backing from key cast like Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard, the other EPs and Fox – the only votes that count.