Jussie Smollett is not returning to “Empire” — for now.
Fox announced on Tuesday that it had renewed its hip-hop drama “Empire” for a sixth season, but the network said that there were “no plans” for Smollett’s character, Jamal, to return to the series in the fall.
However, the network also announced that it also had negotiated an extension for Smollett’s option, which leaves the door open that his character, the gay musician son of the head of Empire Entertainment, could return at some point next season.
The decision essentially buys the Fox broadcast network and 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that produces the show and which is now owned by The Walt Disney Company, more time to decide Jamal’s ultimate fate.
Smollet made national news when he told the police that two men jumped him around 2 a.m. on Jan. 29 on a Chicago street, yelling racist and homophobic slurs, along with “This is MAGA country!,” a reference to President Trump’s campaign slogan.
After poring over hundreds of hours of surveillance footage, the police homed in on two brothers who had provided physical training to Smollett. After many hours of questioning, the brothers told detectives that Smollett had paid them $3,500 to stage the attack, and Smollett was charged in late February with filing a false police report. The Chicago police said he had faked the attack to gain publicity because he was upset with his “Empire” salary.
Smollett maintained his innocence. A month later, prosecutors dropped all charges without much explanation, angering Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s police superintendent.
State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, who removed herself from the investigation after initially interceding on behalf of Smollett’s representatives, is fighting an attempt to appoint a special prosecutor to review the case. At Foxx’s request, the Cook County inspector general is performing its own review.
Last week, Smollett’s fellow “Empire” cast members — including its stars Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson — signed a letter asking Fox executives and producers of the show to bring him back next season.
The announcement on Tuesday suggests that executives and producers are nowhere close to providing that level of commitment.
According to Variety, a representative for Smollett said in a statement: “We’ve been told that 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. Most importantly he is grateful to Fox and ‘Empire’ leadership, cast, crew and fans for their unwavering support.”
Fox had little choice but to provide a status update on Smollett. On May 13, Fox will host its annual showcase for advertisers at the Beacon Theater, where it will unveil its fall prime-time lineup for the 2019-2020 season. Network and studio executives would have been bombarded with questions from the press and advertisers on whether Smollett would be coming back.
When Jamal was last seen on “Empire,” he had just gotten married. Whether his departure will be for a number of episodes or permanent remains in the air.
“Empire” is a fading hit. It is currently ranked 17th among broadcast entertainment shows — the first time in its five-season run that it has dropped that low — but it still draws the third-highest ratings of any Fox show, behind only the zany reality competition series “The Masked Signer” and the drama “9-1-1,” according to Nielsen.
Fox executives will also have more than Smollett on their mind when they make their pitch to advertisers. With Disney’s purchase of most of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets, the Fox broadcast network is now divorced from its accompanying television studio. Fox’s new executives will have to make a case that a leaner broadcast network can make inroads with Hollywood’s creative community and still command a large prime-time audience.