Does Fox's 'Empire' need a new playbook?

Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson in "Empire."

Even Lucious Lyon knows Fox's Empire could use new material.

"You might want to start making some plays out of a new playbook. All this is getting very old and very boring," the murderous mogul (Terrence Howard) tells his excitable ex, Cookie (Taraji P. Henson), as the Fox hip-hop drama returns on Wednesday.

Don't blame Henson, whose inspiring role as one of NASA's brilliant human computers in Hidden Figures was a reminder of her versatility. I can't even blame Cookie. Her need to upstage Lucious at every turn has its roots in the 17 years she spent in prison -- for the drug deal that bankrolled the company they now theoretically run together.

She missed the childhoods of their three sons. He got filthy rich.

So when Cookie picks up the baseball bat that you may have seen in the promos for Wednesday's episode, the first since Dec. 14, I'm not going to be the one to tell her to put it down.

I only wonder if this is the best use of her time. Or Empire's.

Read more: Empire is soapy fun, with music

Because watching this third season has occasionally been more chore than guilty pleasure. Because Lucious is irredeemable, and, at a certain point, irredeemable isn't all that interesting. Because Cookie is better than this.

Cookie is also better than Angelo Dubois (Taye Diggs), the would-be mayor of New York who's been making time with her. At this point, Angelo feels more like a device to annoy Lucious than an actual character.

I've been hearing since the second season from people who weren't as excited by Empire as they were in its first dizzying year, but I've tended to discount some of the disenchantment. No show could sustain that level of hype forever.

Empire was groundbreaking for the music and for featuring a family from a very different background than the Ewings of Dallas or the Carringtons of Dynasty, but the show that West Philadelphia's Lee Daniels created with Danny Strong is every bit as much a prime-time soap opera as those were.

Maybe Empire just needs a funnier villain. When I remember J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), it's as much for his wicked smile as for his wicked ways.

It's not that Lucious doesn't have his moments. In my favorite line in Wednesday's episode, he bemoans an old associate's lack of loyalty: "And to think I spent a bunch of money on his daughter’s leukemia bills, and she still died."

But he's a bad, bad man, and his Cookie obsession plays as scary, not endearing.

Their epic battles may make for great individual scenes (see bat, Cookie), but they're not so good for Empire the company, where sons Andre (Trai Byers) and Hakeem (Philadelphia's Bryshere Y. Gray) are reenacting their parents' battles in a boardroom where no real work ever appears to get done. (As the season resumes, Jussie Smollett's Jamal is still in rehab but itching to get back to the studio. Oh, and he's made a new friend, played by Rumer Willis.)

One promising storyline this season has involved Becky (Gabourey Sidibe) and her workplace nemesis, Xavier Rosen (Samuel Hunt), and what I liked about it — besides its giving Sidibe more to do — was that it reminded us that Empire is a workplace. Most of us will never work in the music business, but we've all had bosses, and Becky's problems at least feel real. And they may even have solutions.

Empire could use a little more of that kind of grounding. Because it can send Cookie up to bat only so often.