Fox exec: We might find a way to bring Smollett back for Empire's final season

Chicago won’t have Empire to kick around for much longer … but they may have Jussie Smollett on hand until then. Fox Entertainment announced that the series set in the Windy City will have its sixth season be its final stanza. The decision follows not just the hate-crime-hoax scandal from one of its stars, but also collapsing interest, Deadspin notes:

The axing of Empire follows the cancelling of co-creator Daniels’ 20th Century Fox TV produced Star on May 10 after three seasons, which Collier today called “difficult.” The Strong EP’d and also Disney-owned TCFTV produced midseason replacement legal drama Proven Innocent was pink slipped by Fox the network 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.

On the other hand, amidst other long in the tooth issues, Empire was pummeled this year by new ratings lows and the every spiraling controversy over the January 29 presumed hate crime that the Jamal Lyon portraying Smollett is now alleged by Chicago Police and prosecutors to have perpetrated against himself.

Fox actually axed a number of its current series, including the Empire spinoff Star. The network’s decision to allow a final season for Empire is a nod to its history as the star of its lineup in earlier seasons, and also likely for a small measure of continuity as it attempts to generate interest in ten new shows for its prime-time lineup. But will the network bring back the show’s most well-known actor for a reprise?

Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier is keeping his options open:

“We are turning the final season of ‘Empire’ into a large television event,” Fox Entertainment CEO Charlie Collier told a teleconference Monday. “One of the great benefits of announcing a final season is that you actually allow the fans to lean in and have the ending they deserve.”

Collier dodged questions about Smollett’s future with the show after the actor was accused of staging an attack in which he said two masked men beat him, hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him, doused him with a chemical substance and put a rope around his neck. Criminal charges were dropped but the uproar has yet to subside, making Smollett a continued publicity liability for Fox.

When pressed, Collier said there is an option to include him in the series “but at this point we have no plans for that.”

Collier then explained that those discussions have not yet taken place:

Collier said the network aimed to turn the show’s final season “into a large television event,” with “Empire” moving to a new night and time — airing at 9 p.m. on Tuesdays following Fox’s medical drama “The Resident.”

Pressed for a direct answer on whether Smollett could return to the show, Collier echoed that Fox has “no plans for that,” but ultimately said it was too early to call: “The writer’s room hasn’t even gathered yet,” he said.

The cast might have a word or two to say about the idea. Most of them lined up publicly behind Smollett, most notably lead actors Terence Howard and Taraji P. Henderson, but some spoke anonymously with reporters about their unhappiness with Smollett. The ensuing friction might be one reason that Fox is less than enthusiastic about dealing with Empire for more than one more season regardless which way they go on Smollett.

It also might be why they shifted Empire to a new slot. That doesn’t look like a favor to the show’s producers or cast:

Once a guaranteed ratings blockbuster for Fox, Empire’s most recent season was dogged by low viewing figures, as well as Smollett’s controversy.

For its final season, the show will return to its original Tuesday airdate, in direct competition with NBC juggernaut This Is Us.

That makes Tuesday 9 PM look like a pretty good graveyard in which they can lay Empire’s bones. On the other hand, it also sets up an interesting challenge for attention that maybe only Smollett’s return can satisfy. Even the Kleenex brigades who watch the NBC show might tune in for a peek at how they bring back Smollett’s character. If Fox gets desperate enough, they’ll pull out that last stop, if for no other reason to get people talking about its prime-time lineup again. Get ready for that November sweeps season!