Chuck Hodes/Fox
Tim Stack
September 06, 2016 AT 10:56 PM EDT

Without a doubt, Empire had one of the most impressive debut seasons in TV history, with ratings that grew nearly week after week. It also became a near-instant pop culture discussion piece. But as so often happens with instant TV sensations (think Glee, Heroes), the show slipped into a sophomore slump when it returned last fall due to some over-the-top and overambitious storytelling.

Season 2’s early episodes were cluttered with stunt casting (Chris Rock! Kelly Rowland!) and unremarkable ancillary characters. “On most shows it’s like, story line A, B, and C,” jokes star Gabourey Sidibe, who plays Empire label staffer Becky. “But we were, like, well into F and G and Z.”

Adds Jussie Smollett, “I think that because we have season 1 to compare it to, that was so phenomenal that it was hard.  So I think that we definitely had kind of the sophomore slump.”

Co-creator Lee Daniels admits that last year’s plotlines “got a little cray-cray,” and says, “It’s no one’s fault… But I was not prepared. I take responsibility that I was not prepared for a season 2. I wasn’t prepared for the first season. So we’ll see. I think it’s going to work out wonderfully. This year will be like going back to what we started out to do.”

Ratings, luckily, remained durable, averaging 16.2 million viewers per episode, but occasionally the cast’s creative dissatisfaction played out in the press. “I mean, there might be times where someone is making some complaint and you’ll read it in Page Six,” laughs exec producer Brian Grazer. “Our show does get acted out in real time in gossip columns. But that’s just sorta the way it works. We have people that are flammable in some ways, and that’s great for the show, and sometimes it needs some course-correcting in real life.”

Course-correcting is exactly what the studio and the writing staff did quickly into season 2. According to producers, one of the biggest missteps was separating the family into two different record labels: Empire and Lyon Dynasty. “First off, I don’t think the show was a trainwreck or this big disaster,” defends co-creator Danny Strong. “It was a little inconsistent. But I think this whole perception that the first half of this season was a failure I think would not have been the case if the show had not been under the microscope it was under. I think the standards were a little high. We made some adjustments. I think we got the show back on track by episode 8.”

Adds executive producer Ilene Chaiken, “The biggest lesson [learned] was to keep the show about the family as much as possible.”

But all agree that this latest season is prime Empire. “The great part is through the suffering comes a great season because I really think season 3 is off the chain,” says Daniels. “We learned from our mistakes.”

To read more on Empire, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly on stands Friday, or buy it here – and subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

Empire season 3 premieres Sept. 21 at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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