Fox has renewed Empire for a sixth season, but it will continue without actor Jussie Smollett — at least at the outset.
The embattled actor was written out of the show’s final two episodes of this season, and while he remains under contract, his character, Jamal Lyon, isn’t scheduled to return.
“By mutual agreement, the studio has negotiated an extension to Jussie Smollett’s option for season six, but at this time there are no plans for the character of Jamal to return to Empire,” Fox and producer 20th Century Fox TV said Tuesday in a statement.
“We’ve been told Jussie will not be on Empire in the beginning of the season but he appreciates they have extended his contract to keep Jamal’s future open,” said a rep for Smollett. “Most importantly he is grateful to Fox and Empire leadership, cast, crew and fans for their unwavering support.”
Smollett’s future with the series has remained up in the air since he was charged with lying to police over an alleged attack in the early hours of Jan. 29. Those charges were eventually dropped, but Smollett was written out of the final two episodes of the season (airing May 1 and 8). His character was given an upbeat sendoff as Jamal married his fiancé, Kai (Toby Onwumere), and they embarked on a honeymoon.
Smollett’s co-stars, meanwhile, sent a letter to producers and studio and network executives asking that he return to the series. “We must stand together as a family. A family is there for us in good times and bad. It can cut through the noise and confusion to understand that there is a person in the center of all this who deserves nothing more than to move forward with his life,” the letter read in part. “We understand that this show is a business. And that business matters to us as well. We are confident our fans will welcome our ‘Jamal’ back into the Empire family as enthusiastically as we will.”
As for the series itself, Empire is Fox’s second-highest rated drama in 2018-19 and No. 3 entertainment series overall (behind The Masked Singer and 911). With a week of delayed viewing, it averages a 2.1 rating among adults 18-49 and about 6.6 million viewers. With Fox now an independent network, it will be paying Disney — the new owner of the network’s former corporate sibling 20th TV — a license fee to air season six.
Co-creators Lee Daniels and Danny Strong executive produce with Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo of Imagine TV, Sanaa Hamri, Dennis Hammer, Matt Pyken and Diane Ademu-John.
“Empire continues to break barriers with its emotionally powerful storytelling, and it remains a core part of the Fox legacy,” said Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn. “We want to thank everyone on the show — Taraji [P. Henson], Terrence [Howard] and the entire cast, as well as Lee, Danny, Brett [Mahoney], Sanaa, Brian, Francie, Dennis and their teams — all of whom have done a tremendous job this season. We know there are so many more stories to tell, and we can’t wait to see what they have in store for season six.”
The drama joins 911, Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, Hell’s Kitchen, Last Man Standing, The Masked Singer, The Resident and The Simpsons on Fox’s 2019-20 schedule. The network is also adding WWE Smackdown to Friday nights in October, reducing the available real estate for entertainment programming. It also has Thursday Night Football in the fall.