As the end nears, how Starz’s ‘Power’ became such a powerful show

Christopher Harris

THE WASHINGTON POST – Watching the St Patrick family unravel like a loosely tied knot at the hands of its patriarch has made for compelling television over the course of Power’s six seasons. And since the start of Starz’s drama-driven, action-based thriller, there has seemed to be an inevitable end in store for protagonist James St Patrick, portrayed by Omari Hardwick.

In the beginning of the series, St Patrick appears to have it all: respect, money, power. Peering down from the balcony of his elite New York nightclub, Truth, in the show’s ominous opening scene, he is literally and symbolically on top. But he’s hiding something: St Patrick is secretly a coldblooded, drug-dealing criminal known as Ghost. An anti-hero whose Jekyll and Hyde-like inner conflict tortures his loved ones, Ghost wants to change. His provocateurs – best friend Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora) and wife Tasha (Naturi Naughton) – can’t fathom how they will fit into his life if he leaves drug lording behind to become a legitimate club owner or politician.

“I believe that our brand of storytelling, which is very plot heavy, very cliffhanger-driven, very excitement-driven, I think we have some characters that people haven’t seen on television or hadn’t at the time the show began,” co-creator and showrunner Courtney Kemp said. “Our show is a mixture of a detective story, cops and robbers, and it’s a soap also, it’s a love triangle drama, it’s a family drama, it has a lot of different things that are going on that appeal to a broad audience.”

That audience will probably be watching as this chapter of Power concludes with its series finale soon. Those involved in the show can bow out gracefully: The series has become a formidable force in television, a trending topic on and offline and one of the most interactive spectacles on cable.

A majority of the players in this tragedy – including other characters such as Ghost’s son Tariq St Patrick (Michael Rainey Jr); Tasha’s best friend Lakeisha Grant (La La Anthony); and mentor turned foe Kanan Stark (Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson) – were conceptualized by Kemp after she was paired by her agency with producers Mark Canton and Jackson as creative partners around 2011.

Curtis ‘50 Cent’ Jackson, seen here portraying Kanan Stark, is also an executive producer and co-creator of the show. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Ghost’s wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), is one of his provocateurs who can’t fathom how her life will change if he leaves the drug game

Jackson – who is one of Power’s executive producers, co-creators and stars – hit the lottery with his first foray into television, adding to his pedigree as a multi-platinum, chart-topping, hip-hop mogul. He collaborated with Kemp on what exactly they wanted the show to be – Jackson, relaying personal events and raps to convey his concept, and Kemp, whose father had recently passed, wanting to write about her parent.

“I talked with her about my experiences,” Jackson said. “I had a vision for the show and periodically she would say, ‘Say that again.’ She creatively kept things she felt were necessary. I ended up writing five different songs, representations of each of the characters and Courtney used me, along with her father, to create Ghost.”

Ultimately, Kemp’s idea for a blaxploitation crime show (that she wanted to be called The Price) and Jackson’s desire to craft a TV project with good music (a la Gordon Parks Jr’s Superfly) became Power as it is today.

“I don’t think the show would have turned out the same if I wasn’t involved,” Jackson said bluntly.

Jackson and Kemp, who has worked on shows such as The Good Wife and The Bernie Mac Show, initially had trouble finding a home for their series.

They started to present more of the show’s musical component – such as the theme song Big Rich Town, written from Ghost’s perspective and performed by Jackson – and even offered up Jackson for the lead role.

When the two finally wound up in front of executives at Starz, former CEO Chris Albrecht and Carmi Zlotnik, the head of programming, were intrigued.

“I remember being captivated by the ideas that they were talking about,” Zlotnik said. “Courtney came in talking about code-switching, her father and opportunities in the business world, and Curtis was talking about how the old conception of drug dealing, corner boys, was passe.

“I thought the combination of the vision that they had for a show would make something I had never seen before.”

As a Starz original series, Power’s viewership has grown exponentially since debuting on June 7, 2014, to 462,000 households, according to Nielsen TV and Radio Ratings. Throw in the booming data from Starz’s digital-based streaming service, and Power, which now averages approximately 10 million viewers per episode, is the network’s most-watched show ever.

“I think that the Starz service has ridden on Powers’ back, and Power has lifted us up and introduced us to an audience that we didn’t have, and a fan base and a strategy and a way of thinking,” Zlotnik said.

It took just two episodes of the show for Tyquell ‘Ty’ Campbell to realise he was a fan. Captivated by a ‘gritty’ trailer and drawn in further by the plot’s chaos, the 21-year-old college student from South Carolina decided to create a PowerTVFans Twitter account to follow the action on-screen. Six years later, Campbell’s “hobby” has garnered a substantial following.

“I felt like it would be fun – at the time – just to love and appreciate the cast and crew, and interact with people from across the world,” Campbell said. “Never in my mind, did I think I would have over 44,000 followers.”

PowerTVFans is just one of countless accounts across social networking sites dedicated to the show, including parody handles for several of the characters, an account for the show’s writers, and one that offers answers to “everything you forgot, want or need to know” about the show. Hashtags surrounding the series (#FreeGhost and #WhoShotGhost among them) have routinely become Twitter trending topics as the show airs. Just look at the last August premiere of Season 6, which explained the controversial, climactic death of Angela Valdes, the United States (US) attorney (played by Lela Loren) with whom Ghost has an affair. The plot point accumulated almost one million mentions, solidifying it as one of TV’s most-tweeted-about episodes last summer, according to Starz.

Kemp had predicted engagement would be amplified for that particular story line. Just two days before the premiere, she said that while she was excited for the final season to begin, she was also “terrified” of seeing fans’ reactions online. “Black Twitter is…” Kemp said, trailing off in laughter.

“We want to make sure things have fan impact, and we definitely want the audience to have a good time and to achieve catharsis and to enjoy themselves… but I’ve never let what the fans wanted change what we were going to do – never.”

Campbell can personally attest that Kemp has chimed in to give feedback to viewers on multiple occasions as the show has “a never-ending conversation among the fans going back and forth on social media,” he said.

Power’s obsessive fan base has exalted the show as fans like Campbell look to discuss, dissect and denounce the plot in real time. Meanwhile, Jackson’s personal Twitter account – which boasts 10 million more followers than Campbell’s, the official handle for Power and Starz’s own Twitter combined – constantly pumps out content promoting the series.

“Fifty is the beginning of our social media strategy, the middle and the end of it,” Zlotnik said. “We try to augment and there’s a bunch of things that we can do, but he has, from the beginning, the largest share of voice and the most interesting content and the most interesting perspective.”

“He’s a marketing king and he’s a known name in the industry,” Campbell added. “He knows how to keep people talking.”

As the show comes to a close, Jackson and Kemp have moved on to new contracts to produce more shows and capitalise off Power’s reach: Kemp signed an overall deal with Lionsgate, while Jackson has projects brewing with ABC. Both are expected to continue churning out sequels and prequels for the Starz series as part of what Zlotnik calls “the Power cinematic universe”.

As the finale of the series approaches, the whodunit mystery of (spoiler!) who killed Ghost has been the main focus, and there’s tension as to whether the death of the cherished main character is a tragedy or a morality play. But shocking cliffhangers and a twisting plot performed by actors that the audience emotionally resonates with is what has kept the show on for six seasons.

“There are stories about people in our culture that we may not run into in our day-to-day lives, but are still interesting and compelling and valuable for us as human beings to partake in,” Zlotnik said.

“I think Power has got a legacy of following a character in Ghost who could have been anything, but only realizes that later in life, and that is… something a lot of us can relate to, not knowing what we were capable of. That’s a huge story, and I think that we’ve contributed to the fabric of human stories through Starz doing Power.”