Pop quiz: How many of you knew that Starz had a new drama series called Power on the way? Did you know what it was about, or that it premiered Saturday night?
No matter how you answered those questions, the television industry has reached a point where relatively prominent networks can produce and release a slick-looking new show with some big names attached and most of the country isn't even aware of it, myself included. Power is further confirmation that there is simply too much television out there. And the consequence is that solid-but-not-great shows like Power are likely to immediately fall through the cracks in an instant. That's too bad; while the series' opening episode ran through a cavalcade of familiar paces, it did so with a few solid performances and some impressive visuals.
In case you didn't catch the debut, either on Starz or online via early sampling, Power follows James "Ghost" St. Patrick (Being Mary Jane's Omari Hardwick), a wealthy club owner by night and a burgeoning drug kingpin... also by night. Having clawed his way to the top of the drug game, James struggles to reconcile his illegally obtained income with his dreams of going completely legit. His wife Tasha (The Playboy Club's Naturi Naughton) is well aware of where the money comes from, but she isn't especially fond of James' occasional aloofness and/or dedication to the job. And as James' relationship with his Mexican drug connection (Without a Trace's Enrique Murciano) starts to go south and an old flame with a problematic occupation (Gang Related's Lela Loren) enters his life, James starts to feel the pressure that comes along with—you guessed it—power.
If that sounds entirely derivative, that's because it absolutely is. As this pilot made clear, Power doesn't have many new ideas to present to the world. There was quite a bit of discussion about what it takes to survive on the street and what it means to try to escape that life when it's been such an integral part of your life for so long, and blah blah blah. James spoke about how he "made it" to his dead father, and yet found himself troubled by having to take drastic, violent means to protect his drug operation as efficiently as possible.
Furthermore, we met James as he was getting dressed to the nines to manage his swanky new club, but by the end of the next sequence, he'd stripped off the nice shirt and tie so that he could execute someone who hit up one of his drug hotspots. Power is the kind of series that makes a big point out of the symbolism in its lead character's apparel; putting on, then taking off, then putting back on that outfit was clearly intended to signify that James is trapped between two worlds, that the suit is something he wears to cosplay in a life he wishes was completely real, and so on.
Every plotline established in this pilot immediately evoked stories we've seen before. Of course James has to be morally conflicted about his dueling lives. Of course Lela Loren's Angela represents the road not traveled and happens to be part of a task force that's specifically trying to hunt James down. And of course there are questions about who James can trust and who thinks they can trust him. Power is absolutely the type of wrong-side-of-the-law cable drama we've grown very comfortable with, and that networks know how to churn out with ease.
Nevertheless, in the capable hands of creator Courtney Kemp Agboh (a former writer for The Good Wife), director Anthony Hemingway, and Omari Hardwick, these too-familiar conversations and sequences boasted a surprising amount of life and style. Hemingway's direction gave Power a strong visual template to work with from here on out; this sucker was glossy when it needed to be and a little cold when it needed to be. The opening episode did some fine stuff with its New York locations, which is always a plus in my mind. Agboh, Hemingway, and their editing team also did a nice job of keeping the hour moving. The story might've been familiar, but so much was established in the opening 50 minutes—James' internal turmoil and his external threats with the Mexican cartel and the Puerto Rican competition, various subplots involving his wife's jealousy, his mother-in-law's distrust, etc.—that there wasn't much time to really ponder how standardized it all is. Everything came together in a well-produced package.
However, the real revelation was Hardwick, who's appeared in a lot of stuff you've probably seen (Dark Blue and Kick-Ass, perhaps most notably). The pilot asked Hardwick to carry so much of the load, and James is somewhat of an interesting character—particularly in the second half of the episode, once Angela showed up—but he handled himself very well. Hardwick's James is more emotionally expressive than you might expect from this kind of anti-hero-ish character at the center of a dark cable drama, and the actor seems to have good chemistry with everyone in the cast. That's especially true with regard to Joseph Sikora, who plays James' longtime buddy Tommy. The scenes between the two of them were warm and natural, even when the characters were discussing how to keep a million-dollar drug operation from going under.
There's also something to be said for Power's diverse cast and crew. Many of the show's key players are minorities, including creator Agboh and director Hemingway. It's not fair to say that it's progressive for Starz to have picked up a series from a black woman about a black drug dealer who works primarily with folks from Mexico (and while Puerto Ricans serve as his primary competition), but it's certainly a good thing. Frankly, there've been enough TV shows featuring middle-aged white dudes breaking the proverbial bad. If we really need another series with these types of storylines, I welcome one that, from top to bottom, comes from a different perspective. That's something we should support.
Power's pilot wasn't great, nor did it establish anything that felt fresh or original enough to make the show worth committing to immediately. However, despite the familiarity of the story beats and the character types, a strong lead performance from Omari Hardwick at least forces me to consider putting Power on my already extended DVR watchlist. If you haven't already, I suggest that you consider doing the same.
– I don't watch many Starz shows, but this episode didn't feature HBO or Cinemax levels of nudity, which I found to be a little surprising. There was some exhibitionist masturbation from Naughton's character, though, so suck it Game of Thrones!
– This show is executive-produced by Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson, who will appear in a supporting role, but he was a no-show in the first episode. What a shame that was, right? Mr. Jackson did provide the theme song and at least one other track, which played immediately after the opening titles, because I guess that's the only way people are going to listen to 50 Cent music in 2014. The intro sequence was pretty cool, though.
Did you watch the debut of Power? What'd you think? Had you even heard of it before now?
AIRED ON 8/21/2016
Season 3 : Episode 6
AIRS ON 8/28/2016
Season 3 : Episode 7