What gives ‘Power’ its juice? Over-the-top plots, Black Twitter love and messy characters
50 Cent’s series on Starz is finishing up its sixth and last season
This report contains spoilers.
When crime drama Power made its July 7, 2014, debut on Starz, the unapologetically pulp series was largely dismissed by television critics. “The writing and the acting are not memorable, the visual acumen isn’t impressive …” wrote the Hollywood Reporter. “Everyone seems to be imitating someone they saw in another gangster movie,” observed the Wall Street Journal.
Yet despite those early detractors, Power, which recently made its midseason return in its sixth and final season, has become one of cable television’s most watched and buzzy series. Last August, the show conceived by showrunner Courtney Kemp and executive produced by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, pulled in 1.47 million viewers, the largest on-air debut for a premium cable show that summer. (HBO’s Emmy-winning Big Little Lies was second with 1.42 million in June.) The season six opener was the second most-watched cable drama of the year following Game of Thrones. Just as impressive are Power’s multiplatform numbers. In season five, traditional TV airings, on demand, and online streaming combined for an average of 10.8 million viewers per episode.
Those numbers are a result of over-the-top plotlines, some social media magic and the scarcity of complex black characters on TV.
“We don’t often get a chance to see flawed, messy black characters on TV that we are supposed to root for,” said Los Angeles-based entertainment writer Sabrina Ford, who has covered the series’ rapid ascent. “White characters get to be flawed. They get to be murderers like Dexter. You are told to root for those characters. Whereas oftentimes with black TV characters, you only root for them if they are 100 percent good. I like that Power is messy. That makes it more interesting.”
Messy is right.
James St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) lives a double life: He’s a family man and successful nightclub owner and also “Ghost,” the most powerful drug kingpin in New York. He’s looking to get out of the lucrative but dangerous game for the more peaceful confines of legit business. But Ghost’s ride-or-die wife Tasha (Naturi Naughton), is enamored of their glamorous, Manhattan penthouse lifestyle. And his loyal but maniacal partner in crime Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora) also isn’t too happy about Ghost’s plans to leave the drug trade.
From there, things go completely sideways.
Ghost’s affair with childhood sweetheart Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), who also happens to be an assistant U.S. attorney (!!!), blows up in their faces. There are double-crosses, unlikely team-ups, bloodthirsty drug cartels, crooked politicians, endless shootouts, R-rated hookups, and a body count (132) that far exceeds that of The Sopranos.
“We created a dangerous environment where anyone can go,” said 50 Cent, whose gleefully villainous character Kanan was killed off in season five. The hip-hop star turned television mogul praises Kemp, whose writing credits include stints on The Bernie Mac Show, Beauty & The Beast and The Good Wife, for keeping fans on their toes.
“That’s the excitement of Power,” said 50 Cent. “We showed people that there are repercussions for your actions, your behavior, and the choices that you make in your life. And those choices will leave you somewhere else.”
When St. Patrick was seemingly gunned down at the end of episode 10, Starz used the tagline “Who Shot Ghost?” a nod to Dallas’ classic 1980 cliffhanger.
The campaign went viral as viewers passionately debated which of seven suspects squeezed the trigger — Tasha, Tommy, the habitually line-stepping Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.); rival drug dealer Dre (Rotimi Akinosho), former U.S. attorney Cooper Saxe (Shane Johnson), Angela’s revenge-obsessed sister Paz (Elizabeth Rodriguez), or crooked councilman Rashad Tate (Larenz Tate).
By the end of episode 11 of power these are the questions I still have : who shot ghost & is he really dead??? 😭
— Ki (@kicooo_) January 5, 2020
The unlikely hit that no one saw coming is still keeping them guessing. “By the end of episode 11 of power these are the questions I still have: Who shot ghost & is he really dead???” a fan posted on Twitter. “If Ghost dead [for real] I might not watch Power anymore cause howwwwww y’all gone kill the main character?” protested another.
“Power’s fan base is very loyal,” said Ty Campbell, 21, who started an unofficial Twitter account dedicated to the series in 2014. Today @PowerTVFans has more than 43,000 followers, including Kemp and some cast members.
“Sometimes I look at some of the [comments] that fans Tweet out and I’m like, ‘This is a little too much,’ ” he said, laughing. “But the show always had a way of speaking to the audience and taking us on a wild journey.”
Tariq, the St. Patrick’s meek private school son turned cutthroat drug dealer, may go down as one of television’s most hated characters, generating an endless stream of hilariously mean-spirited memes.
Everyone’s favorite white boy, Tommy, had the internet going nuts when he nonchalantly dropped the N-word during a conversation with Ghost.
And when Ghost and Tommy became enemies, Starz created the Twitter accounts @TeamGhost (13,400 followers) and @TeamTommy (9,500 followers), increasing chatter surrounding Power by 820%. Starz reported that the campaign saw more than 850,000 mentions as #PowerTV became the No. 1 trending hashtag on Twitter the day season six premiered.
Throughout its five year-plus run, Power has amassed more social media interaction than acclaimed competitors Empire, Fear The Walking Dead, and How to Get Away With Murder, according to Nielsen’s social content ratings. Much of the credit for that success goes to its largely black viewership.
“The secret weapon is targeting audiences that are voracious watchers of television and would like to have something on there that is targeted toward them and is high quality,” Starz CEO Chris Albrecht told Indiewire in 2017 about the network’s African American outreach.
For veteran actor Tate, who joined Power in season four, the intense fandom surrounding the series has been surreal. “Black Twitter has helped push the numbers and the narrative of the show,” he said. “We have Courtney, an exceptional writer, and all of the great acting talent in place. But the presence of social media on all the platforms and how they have embraced Power is really helpful. We have to acknowledge that and be appreciative.”
No member of the Power team understands the importance of engaging with fans more than 50 Cent, who has used his talent as a social media troll to become the series’ most prominent ambassador. “I don’t think Power would be where it is today without 50 being such a huge presence,” Tate said.
Indeed, whether it’s calling out the Emmys for snubbing the show on racial grounds or playfully going at it with superfans, 50 Cent preaches the gospel of Power one post at a time. While he isn’t shy when it comes to flexing his creative control over the series, 50 Cent’s true reach is his more than 36 million followers combined on Twitter and Instagram.
“My IG has been disabled because I’m tired of ya mouth,” he joked last fall after viewers revolted when he unveiled a remix to Power’s theme song, “Big Rich Town.” The track originally featured ’90s R&B crooner Joe, but an updated version pairing 50 Cent with Trey Songz was bashed so mercilessly that he relented and changed the song back.
“It’s never-ending,” 50 Cent said. “That’s just my way with staying connected with the [Power] fans. There’s going to be humor in no matter how it comes out.”
When Kemp first proposed her vision for the series, Starz was looking to shake things up. Shows such as Magic City and Boss were struggling to grow and Albrecht saw an opportunity to bring a new demographic to the network.
“Starz was on the brink of changing,” she recalled during a Paley Center for Media event in Los Angeles in 2016. “So, as a result there was no formula for what made a Starz show. Chris [Albrecht] is not afraid of black people. He has a level of relaxation with the subject matter in the world that made it safe place for me to come and be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do a whole scene about how a woman wants to touch Tasha’s hair and she’s not into it.’ And he’s like, ‘Cool, fine, I totally get it.’ ”
Power was greenlit by Starz on June 17, 2013. After the series premiered a little more than a year later, ratings and word-of-mouth grew with each episode. Needless to say, Power has paid off big-time for the premium cable channel. Last year, Starz ended the first fiscal quarter with 26.5 million total subscribers, its best performance since launching in 2012. According to Lionsgate, the parent company of Starz, those figures were up 2.6 million from 2018.
But while Power is receiving notice for its commercial impact, critical acclaim has been harder to come by. “I’ve been in many conversations with white people who are avid TV watchers who fancy themselves as experts of what’s hot and what’s not and they don’t know anything about Power,” said Ford, who wrote a piece for Medium in November on what she sees as an industry snub. “This is a show with huge ratings. It’s as if some white critics and entertainment journalists don’t really feel like they have to know black popular culture.”
Executives, however, can see the score. In October 2018, Lionsgate, the parent company of Starz, signed Kemp to a multiyear, multishow pact. The deal came shortly after 50 Cent inked a multiseries deal with Starz reportedly worth up to $150 million. The duo’s next project, Power Book II: Ghost, will reportedly star rhythm and blues star and Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige.
So will fans see Tariq follow in his pop’s menacing footsteps? Will we get a street-fueled prequel featuring a young Ghost, Tasha, Tommy and Kanan? Campbell said he has no idea what’s coming next, but he’s ready.
“I want to see how will Courtney and 50 continue to keep this story going outside of Power,” Campbell said. “I just want more great television.”