It is often said that television critics get a bum rap, that we’re accused of too harshly evaluating the shows we follow or missing the forest for the trees. That’s not an unfair judgment, but it’s an incomplete one. Television critics are the biggest cheerleaders of the interesting stuff being done in the medium, and we’ll keep watching something even if it doesn’t immediately appeal to us. I did exactly that with Starz’s Power, which I met with a less-than-rapturous response when I reviewed it based on the first three episodes of the first season. I eventually caught up with the rest of the season, and found a lot to like, even if there are still some execution flaws that prevent it from upshifting from good to great.
What I love about Power is how unabashedly female-skewing it is, even as it explores the gritty criminal underworld, territory aggressively staked out by male storytellers and typically consumed by male audiences. Power is essentially urban street lit, a story not unlike those available for 10 bucks on folding card tables on Adam Clayton Powell, but told with the planning and craft demanded of a competent scripted television show. That in itself is kind of awesome, considering how little television is created with black women in mind, and it’s even cooler in the case of Power, which was developed from 50 Cent’s concept by a black woman, The Good Wife alumna Courtney Kemp Agboh.
I love how sexy Power is, and that it’s sexy in a way that is expressly designed to arouse women. I wasn’t crazy about all the grudge-fucking in season one, and specifically I wanted Ghost to stop ravishing his wife while thinking about murdering someone. But look, I’m not going to yuck anybody’s yum, and I’ve heard from women I know and trust that this sort of thing can hit the spot. I had this conversation with a good friend of mine who will remain nameless, a smart, savvy woman and self-identifying feminist who had this to say: “I wouldn’t love the reality of a guy having sex with me while thinking about someone he murdered, but as something to watch, when fine-ass Omari Hardwick is the one doing the sexing, that’s very hot.” Fair enough. Ghost and Angela are definitely having the hottest sex anywhere on television right now, and it’s obvious why they’re so reticent to halt their affair. My favorite thing is how every time Ghost and Angela hook-up, at the moment their lips meet, they both deeply sigh. Not a sigh of sexual pleasure, but one signifying a rush of relief; the sigh cocktail waitresses make when they take off their uncomfortable shoes after a long shift. (I must consider, though, since Ghost and Angela probably do wear uncomfortable shoes and pull them off right before kissing, it could be a bit of both.)
That said, the first trio of episodes didn’t grab me because Ghost’s world didn’t feel dynamic enough. It felt flat. It certainly felt busy and amply populated, but not as if Ghost’s entire world was what it is: a house of cards on a windy day. Ghost was introduced as a criminal kingpin yearning to go straight in the hopes of honoring his father’s memory by becoming the man of integrity his father was trying to raise. But his legal and illegal lives, both personally and professionally, never felt like they threatened to destroy each other. Ghost’s club business and drug business are fairly symbiotic, and his wife and mistress are well aware of each other, even though they’re less than thrilled with the arrangement. Angela is supposed to be the guillotine swinging over Ghost’s head—and vice-versa—but she never feels like she poses much of a threat to Ghost either. The most potent threat facing Ghost is Kanan, who’s such a cartoonish, mustache-twirling villain, he’s too hubristic to be truly threatening. I fear for any expendable characters who dare to cross Kanan, but there’s never a time when Ghost is in legitimate peril.
My explanation for this has roots in Agboh’s tenure on The Good Wife, as well as the limitations Starz placed on the show. Agboh shares the credit for creating The Good Wife’s Chicago, one of television’s richest, most lifelike worlds. Power comes across as though Agboh hopes to create a world just as expansive and intricate, and while that’s an admirable and ambitious goal, it’s one hard to hit when Starz only gave her an eight-episode first season with which to do it. For all the talk of how The Good Wife is burdened by its network-length seasons, having 22 to 24 episodes per season is a blessing and a luxury when you’re trying to lay out its story, or for that matter, a story about a vast, delicate ecosystem like the intersection of Manhattan’s nightlife and its illicit drug trade. To do the same thing in eight episodes is not an enviable task, and Power managed to accomplish an astonishing level of world building given those constraints. The first season compressed a ton of ideas into a small amount of real estate, and while that didn’t make the show feel overstuffed or needlessly hectic, it did necessitate the coexistence of a lot of plot elements that would have ideally been rolled out over a longer stretch of time.
The larger consequence of the narrative compression is that it negatively impacted the one storyline that did get a deliberate, cautious pace: the pure, oblivious love affair between Ghost and Angela. I regularly forgot in season one that neither Ghost nor Angela knew about each other’s work, and that they were essentially sworn enemies under the impression they’re reunited soulmates with a shot at redemption. That dynamic never quite felt true to me and required both characters to act stupid when the story necessitated it. Intellectually, the story makes perfect sense. Ghost and Angela are people whose work makes trust exponentially more important to them and infinitely more difficult to achieve. As childhood sweethearts, they trigger in each other a memory of trust formed long before they were corrupted by their respective cesspools. It feels pure and nostalgic, and it is, for both of them, the only relationship in which scrutinizing the other person feels uncomfortable and depressing rather than like an unfortunate necessity.
The idea of that story is fantastic, and I applaud any show with the courage to aim for that kind of Shakespearean dramatic irony, even if it’s flying high on wax wings. But season one of Power doesn’t watch the way I just described it. When Ghost and Angela explore their connection, oblivious to each other’s true identity, they don’t look like star-crossed lovers with a mutual blind spot, they look like airheads. As an example, I’d point to episode six, “Who You With?” That’s the episode in which Tommy interrupts Ghost and Angela’s grinning asses on a date at an ice cream parlor and mentions Tasha and Ghost’s children in an incredibly overt way to spoil the mood between them. As they leave, Angela’s in a foul mood and mentions Tommy’s behavior to Ghost, noting how he casually brings up Tasha’s name because he doesn’t know they’re sleeping together. But Tommy’s behavior doesn’t read that way at all. He’s being borderline menacing, and it’s astonishing that a law enforcement professional at Angela’s level wouldn’t detect the subtext in Tommy’s tone.
No matter how often her sister or ill father remind her of Ghost’s past, Angela is never even the least bit interested in probing his double life. Meanwhile, Ghost is like, “Oh, she’s a federal attorney or something, nbd, but that ass though?” The problem isn’t that the story is built incorrectly, it’s just paced so differently than everything else happening in the show. With the Ghost and Angela plot going slow-and-steady as the rest of Power’s universe operates at a hare’s pace, it doesn’t feel like the disciplined storytelling it is, it feels like Ghost and Angela make each other really, really stupid, the kind of stupid I’d prefer neither of them to be capable of.
I’m really excited about Power season two because it’s longer and doesn’t have to do as much heavy lifting as the first season. The production bump from eight episodes to 10 might not seem like much, but it’s a 25 percent increase, which is considerable given all the groundwork laid in the first season. Now that Agboh and her team have set up the chess board, it can concentrate on moving the pieces, and they have two extra episodes with which to do that. “Consequences” sets a solid path for the season ahead, and while there are still some rough patches, Power seems to get leaner and smarter with each episode.
Kudos to Agboh for staying true to the episode’s title and picking up in the immediate wake of the season one finale, “Best Laid Plans.” The finale’s cliffhangers were consequential enough that there must have been considerable temptation to pick up a few weeks down the line and skirt the immediate aftermath of the attempt on Ghost’s life, Holly’s shooting, Kanan’s release, and Tommy’s discovery of Angela. Instead, “Consequences” dives right back in and tweaks its central character dynamics in an intriguing way. The biggest bombshell of the episode is Ghost’s discovery that Angela might have been playing him all along. Tommy’s disappearance provided an elegant framework for the gradual connection of the dots. Between Tommy’s general anxiety and his skepticism about Ghost when it came time to kill Rolla, it makes perfect sense that if he saw Angela’s bags for the Miami trip and thought she and Ghost were flipping him, he would freak out and flee to his mother’s house. Ghost puts it all together and finds Tommy, at which point Tommy explains the truth about Angela and watches as the ice-cold realization washes over Ghost’s face.
Tommy, the hothead he is, wants to kill Angela immediately, but Ghost has another plan. He wants to get closer to her and find out if she was playing him all along. Approaching the story this way is incredibly smart because it gives Ghost good reason to keep making dumb choices as it relates to Angela. In a practical sense, Tommy probably has the right idea. The smart thing to do, from a business perspective, would be to kill Angela. But now Ghost has not only an excuse to keep spending time with Angela—to find out what she actually knows about his organization—but he has an underlying emotional motivation for doing so. Like anyone who’s potentially getting played by their love interest, Ghost is now consumed with finding out how much of his relationship with Angela was real affection and how much was part of the day’s work. And he can justify doing so, despite promising Tasha he would end the affair, by convincing himself he’s being a good businessman, and the mind-shattering sex just comes with the territory.
Kanan still isn’t as formidable a presence as I’d like him to be, and 50 Cent keeps hitting the villainy extra hard. For a show that relies as much on dramatic irony as does Power, it sure doesn’t trust the audience to draw its own inferences. When Kanan is riding in Shawn’s truck and they get the call from Tasha informing Shawn of Ghost’s condition, Kanan turns to flash a Cheshire cat grin out of the window when a few shifty glances would have done the trick just fine. Then, in a bum bit of dialogue, Shawn tells Kanan Ghost didn’t get shot, and Kanan says “She missed?” She missed. Not “Ghost is alright?” He asks if she missed, a clear suggestion of his complicity that goes unnoticed by Shawn. Unless there’s a plan to have Shawn recall this reaction later and put two and two together, that’s a bit sloppy.
Still, it’s great to be able to make minor nitpicks like that one considering how much of its first season Power spent as a show, much like Empire, which can stand to be much better than it is. Based on “Consequences,” Power has the better shot at hitting its targets.
- I thought the rebound of Truth was rushed a bit. I didn’t realize quite how important Truth was to the overall operation of Ghost’s enterprise, and it might have been cool to see Ghost under more pressure as a consequence of the attempt on his life.
- I’m not sure I care about Simon Stern’s hostile quasi-takeover, though I am consistently tickled by Victor Garber’s performance, and I like how playful the show is about Simon’s sexuality. When he tells Ghost he wants to groom him, Simon sounds like he’s literally saying “I want to give you an erotic haircut.” Then, after revealing his coup, he tells Ghost he’ll revamp the club if Ghost cuts bait, changing its name to Coquette. That’s hilarious. (Though, no shade, Coquette is kind of a better name for a club.)
- Tommy really wants Angela dead, but I’m assuming his lust will overpower his bloodlust once Ghost explains how aggressively Holly’s trying to crowbar her way into their illegal business.
- Frankie was on a date when she got the news about Nomar’s death. Not cool Angela. Not fucking cool.
- Ruiz paid for Nomar’s funeral, which was an awfully classy move.
- Welcome to our TV Club reviews of Power! I promise I won’t write this much every week. I tend to go long early on when I’m writing about a show I’m covering for its second season after only briefly covering its first.