In a more perfect, coronavirus-free world, we’d be gearing up to watch the first episodes of Power‘s first spin-off Power Book II: Ghost right about now, but the universe had other plans. Delays notwithstanding, the stalled roll-out of Power’s first spin-off has probably dampened fans’ anticipation for it very little; though only four months have passed since Starz’s blockbuster crime drama answered that final mystery — Who shot Ghost? — we’re still all dying to see what happens next for Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.), Tasha (Naturi Naughton), and Keisha (La La Anthony). (Sike — Keisha is still very much dead; just making sure you’re awake here.)
While we anxiously wait to find out how Tariq will fare at college and see how Mary does as a criminal queen bee, now is a good time to take a step back and appreciate some of the ways the original series left a lasting legacy. Do you remember when you first got hooked on Power? It started off modestly, by TV standards, with less than half a million people watching that first summer day in June; by the Season 1 finale, Power snagged 2.5 million viewers, prompting execs at Starz to capitalize on creator Courtney A. Kemp‘s Black girl magic right away.
“The show made the network, it put the network on the map,” Starz CEO Jeffrey Hirsch told TV Guide earlier this year. Striking just as seismic shifts in the TV industry started to take hold — streaming services and apps that gave people more choices took off, and people of color began reaping the benefits of hard-fought battles for inclusion in front of and behind the camera — Power changed the game. “I’ve had a lot of people say ‘When are you going to find your Game of Thrones?’,” Hirsch said. “Power is the Game of Thrones to our audience.” The four spinoffs in the works suggest that’s not hyperbole.
Watching Power was an immersive experience, a jerky ride into the depths of human nature and the silliest, most astute corners of Black Twitter. Back when Starz debuted the series in June of 2014, Empire hadn’t yet hit Fox, Breaking Bad was reaping its final rewards, and the thought of a shady real estate dude becoming president was just a dark joke — all of which set the stage for a multi-cultural crime drama about a Black criminal trying to go legit.
Maybe you hated Angela (Lela Loren). Perhaps you cheered on Tommy, (Joseph Sikora) crazy as he was, or found yourself yelling at Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.) to do better. You almost certainly chewed your fingernails to the nub a few times — like in the Season 3 finale, when Ghost was breaking into Greg Knox’s apartment and Kanan (50 Cent) had lowkey kidnapped Tariq. Whatever moments had you so shook you had to self-medicate with your vice of choice, Power not only snatched edges but it left an undeniable imprint on TV. Here are some of the ways it shook up television like no other show.
(Note: All interviews took place in late Jan. and early Feb. 2020.)
Anything could happen
It’s not unheard of for shows to kill off the main character as Power did in its final season; indeed, by the time Power titled the last episode of Season 2 “Ghost is Dead” and followed that up with “‘Ghost Must Die” in Season 3, Jamie’s fate seemed sealed. The way writers got there, though, remained a guessing game full of trap doors and inverted expectations. Who can forget Kanan killing his son Shawn? What about when Tommy choked Holly to death after he learned of her hit on Ghost? On Power, loyalties and promises meant nothing, and nobody was ever really safe. “Fearless storytelling,” Kemp called her style in a conversation with TV Guide, saying she committed to “not pulling punches” — even if the choices pissed off the audience. One moment she’s happiest with? “Raina. I’m proud we carried through the promise of that. This is the show where anything can happen.”
One of the main ways Power represented a progressive shift in TV storytelling was in how diverse its principal players were. Anthony Hemingway, who directed the first episode and the last, said Power’s natural reflection of New York City impacted his decision to join the show. “Off of the strength of seeing characters that I felt like I knew personally in NYC, which is where I hail from, I [knew] I had to do it,” he told TV Guide via email. Conventionally, crime dramas tend to focus on a cast of characters that’s mostly one race or another; shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy were by and large about people of the same hue. Not Power. It had a Black man as the main antihero and wrapped viewers up in the story of his (Black) immediate family, but his best friend Tommy was white, as was his adorably wild mom, and many of the gangsters he associated with. Jamie’s lover Angela was Puerto Rican, and the doomed paramours often spoke Spanish with each other. That sexy gay kingpin Felipe Lobos (Enrique Murciano) and his team were Mexican; there were Serbian people, Dominican people, Italian people, Korean people and on and on — their ethnicities almost always a footnote to who the character was in every other way. That shouldn’t be groundbreaking, but it was, and continues to be unusual on scripted TV. “I think we always tried to make the world look like what it was: Black, brown, Asian, white,” Courtney Kemp said. “We were trying to make the world as it was supposed to be.” Joseph Sikora said Power stands as proof that shows don’t have to punch numbers or check boxes. “You can show an honest depiction of humanity and it works.”
An insane lineup of guest stars
By the time Power concluded, fans knew to expect the unexpected, not just with the story but also what well-known faces would show up on screen to tell it. Over the course of its six seasons, the series boasted a staggering and often surprising stable of guest and recurring stars, from Cedric the Entertainer playing a cigar-smoking gangster in the final episodes to Debi Mazar’s turn as a suspicious relative, and of course, that cameo from Pulitzer prize winner Kendrick Lamar in Season 5. But it wasn’t always that way. “The first couple years,” Kemp said, “I couldn’t get people. We were this show that quote unquote ‘no one knew about.’ It was hard to be hiding in plain sight.” Once, after Power had erected billboards all over New York, Kemp was at a party and found herself trying to explain the show and who she was to someone who’d heard of neither. Maybe they still don’t, but in the subsequent years Power nevertheless went on to snag well-respected actors and recognizable faces including Donna Murphy, Bill Sadler, Glynn Turman, Charlie Murphy, Evan Handler, Anika Noni Rose and many more for cameos or recurring roles — often playing against type. “I can’t go [anywhere] without people saying ‘Rashad Tate!'” Larenz Tate, the beloved, ageless actor who first appeared in Season 4 told TV Guide. “People actually think I’m in politics and I’m doing the Queens Child Project! I’ve been fortunate to be part of classic movies in the past. I know when things are shaping up to be classics and Power has a serious legacy. The show speaks to so many facets of the culture; it’s great to be part of it.”
Of course, no one needs a tutorial on the brand building (or destroying) power of Black Twitter, but Power demonstrated not only how creative and intense fandom could be, but how a show’s success can be linked to social media. Never mind the masterful — and sometimes lamentable — trolling by the show’s executive producer and star 50 Cent, Power reliably gave Twitter and IG users material for hilarious and piercing reactions that inspired and stunned the show’s creative team. “Hopefully people will remember getting together on Sundays and yelling at the TV screen….having that great Black Twitter moment,” Kemp said, “Instagramming or Snapchatting their faces when they watch it.” It wasn’t uncommon for Power to be the No. 1 trending topic when episodes aired, and Starz wisely leaned into fan behavior with savvy marketing (including “Team Ghost” and “Team Tommy” accounts) and stunts that enhanced the show’s strength.
Power never shied away from gory scenes; on the contrary, it seemed to delight in them. Though shootings were common (and got more head-splattering as time went on), that was just one of the many creative ways Power characters met their demise. Remember when Julio had his 718 tattoo carved off before taking a blade in the chest, or when or when Ghost bashed prison guard Marshal Williams (Charlie Murphy) head in with a weight? Blood and gore became part of the fun, and Courtney Kemp made sure the camera stayed on the yucky moments. Inspired in part by early CSI which didn’t shy away from showing brain matter or decomposing bodies, Kemp said violence made Power distinctive. “Looking away is for broadcast. You’re not paying for Starz for me to cut away.”
The ‘ride or die’ debate
Power took inspiration from a wide and diverse source of influences, from movies like Heat to Shakespeare to hip-hop. One long-running theme in Power, lifted up out of rap culture and explored in-depth, was the idea of the ‘ride or die’ chick. Particularly as Ghost kept toggling between allegiances to Tasha, his wife, and Angela, his mistress, Power prompted endless debate about how a woman was “supposed” to handle a flagrantly philandering man while balancing the needs of her family. Though Tasha put up with a lot, it wasn’t until Season 6 that fans came to truly understand that it was Angela, not Tasha, who was most ‘ride or die’ for Ghost — having sacrificed her career for him and then you know, actually dying for him. Kemp found herself talking about the idea to the point of near exhaustion, helping viewers understand that the dynamics at play were much more complicated than the rap lyrics that vaulted the phrase into pop culture. Though it was definitely the most prominent hip-hop-inspired trope Power explored, it wasn’t the only one. “Snitches ain’t sh–t is one I played with,” Kemp said, a trope evident in the series finale when Tariq confronts Tasha about going to the police.
A Black woman boss
It’s not unheard of for a Black woman to be at the seat of, well, power on a TV show: a number of great shows, from Grey’s Anatomy to Dear White People to Claws count Black women as creator, executive producers or showrunners. There were 15, by ET’s count, Black women leading shows in the 2017-18 season — yet a study released that same year found that 91 percent of showrunners were white and 80 percent were male. The Writers Guild of America found in 2019 that the industry still upholds a system of “systematic discrimination.” That makes it all the more remarkable that Power’s success is attributable to the stewardship of a Black woman — a Connecticut native who started reading Shakespeare at 10 then went on to study at Brown and Columbia University. People who’ve worked with her describe her success as inevitable. “We worked with Courtney on The Good Wife but prior to that on Justice which was her first job on a drama,” said Michelle King, who created The Good Wife with her husband Robert. “I think she was 26 years old. She’s been terrific since she started in the business. I’m not surprised by her level of success. From the moment I met her it was clear how witty and smart and sophisticated about television she was.” Now with at least four Power spinoffs in the work at Starz, and another project at HBO in the works, Kemp is one of the most bankable, job-creating producers in Hollywood and helping to change the industry overall. How’s she feeling about her own power in this moment? “That’s a hard question,” said Kemp. “Look, I try to take it one day at a time.”