THE SERIES "Empire"

WHEN | WHERE Second-season premiere Wednesday night at 9 on Fox/5

WHAT IT'S ABOUT With Lucious (Terrence Howard) in jail, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson) holds a "Free Lucious" concert, which is just a big ploy to get the big money interested in her gambit to wrest Empire away from him. Mimi Whiteman (Marisa Tomei) is the banker whose bucks she needs. And, as usual, the loyalties of Jamal (Jussie Smollett), Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Bryshere Y. Gray) are complicated, conflicted, confused.

MY SAY Whatever it was that made "Empire" the sensation of the 2014-15 season hasn't gone away for the new season. As always, Cookie is a gold lame stealth missile in stilettos. Never one to just walk into a room, she blows into a room -- then blows it up. Cookie's costumes remain Emmy-winning characters in their own right.

One especially: In a later episode, she appears onstage with Pitbull who -- wisely -- bows away from her gaudy greatness. She's wrapped in a gold braid from neck to waist and struts about on a pair of high heels that look like they should be licensed as lethal weapons. Maybe we should all bow before Cookie's gaudy greatness.

Another welcome sign is those star cameos. These can be the bane of a hit TV show and apparently half of Hollywood wants to indulge "Empire" this season. (From Oprah to Mariah Carey, just about anyone else you can think of will be turning up at the party.)

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But Ludacris is pretty good in his brief spell as the prison guard with a nastier streak than Lucious'; Chris Rock almost seems convincing as the thug with prison vengeance and a blood feud on his mind; Tomei, as a sexually ambiguous Wall Street pirate, is just fun. Andre Royo -- Bubbles from "The Wire" -- may remind you of Saul Goodman from "Breaking Bad" and is also fun.

Meanwhile, "Empire" remains a soap with no pretensions beyond the suds. But there's something melancholy, and forlorn, in its heart: Reach the mountaintop, and the view is still lousy, and worse, everyone wants to push you off. (Especially if her name is "Cookie.")

GRADE B+