Contemporary television is chockablock with dramatic characters leading treacherous double lives, which makes perfect sense given how much urgency that dynamic lends to a series. When characters balance two equally important, sharply incompatible lifestyles that only remain viable as long as they are compartmentalized, their basic existence is always on the verge of collapse. Personal stakes don’t get much higher than that, so why does Power, Starz’s crime drama about a drug kingpin tempted by the legitimacy of his nightclub front, feel so slack? Because it’s the rare double-life drama that could add by subtracting.
Omari Hardwick plays James “Ghost” St. Patrick, a hungry entrepreneur at the helm of two lucrative businesses: a drug syndicate catering to Manhattan’s elite, and a high-glamour nightclub called Truth, which is evolving from a mere front for the drug enterprise to a success story in its own right—and Ghost’s potential path to the straight life. But while Power frames Ghost as a man torn between two worlds, those worlds never seem discrete or disharmonious enough to justify that inner turmoil, so the show plays more like a meditation on the dangers of workaholism than the dangers of maintaining a mask.
While the pilot suggests Power is going to run through the standard double-life beats—the inexorable moral decline, the ever-suspicious loved ones, the psychological stress of subterfuge—it quickly shows its hand, and Power is not that show. Ghost is blithely dispatching his foes from the show’s earliest scenes, while Ghost’s wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), hovers between complicity and participation in his racket and worker bees from his legal and illegal businesses mingle freely without apparent consequence. Ghost is supposed to be a man torn between two worlds, but when those worlds are so harmonious, there’s no building tension.
The only time Ghost looks like a man divided is when he’s circling Angela (Lela Loren), his first love who has become a federal prosecutor in the nearly two decades since they last saw each other, and who is naturally heading up the task force in charge of taking down the Mexican mobster whose product Ghost distributes. If Power sharpened its focus on Ghost and Angela’s unwitting cat-and-mouse game, it wouldn’t necessarily become a good, or even original show, but it would be a clearer direction for a show that feels as conflicted about what it wants to be as its protagonist.
Power’s overabundance of story elements is particularly disappointing because there are robust story possibilities solely in the inner workings of Ghost’s nightclub business. A pay-cable drama set in Manhattan’s nightlife is an intriguing idea, and Power’s directors have the most visual fun on that branch of the story, with the camera dive-bombing into the crowd and snaking through the bustle.
That approach would have also benefited Hardwick, who has the good looks of a leading man but doesn’t have equal command of Ghost’s glam and gangster sides. Hardwick is far more credible as a charismatic lifestyle hustler than he is as a cold-blooded killer, which draws more attention to Power’s shortcomings as a gritty drama about a criminal tempted to go straight. That’s a story that has been told an awful lot, and Power doesn’t seem interested in tweaking it as much as layering a bunch of stuff on top of it.
It’s not entirely surprising Power is what it is considering its pedigree and development; Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson dreamed up the concept while Courtney Kemp Agboh, a former writer on The Good Wife, fleshed it out, and it combines ’50s drug-hustle fetishism with The Good Wife’s often overambitious plotting. That said, Power is more reminiscent of Sons Of Anarchy, another pulpy antihero drama about a man whose struggle with his conscience makes him the odd duck among his shady colleagues and self-serving loved ones.
Sons Of Anarchy didn’t fully jell until its second season, because it first had to inure its audience to the intricacies of its distasteful world and demonstrate that its brutal characters were worth caring about before it could start telling compelling stories about them. If Power can manage to do that in its brief eight-episode first season, it could grow into something richer and more rewarding, much as Sons Of Anarchy did. As it stands now, Power spends far more time telling the audience that everything is at stake for Ghost than showing how everything he holds dear is at stake.
Vince Gilligan has been quoted with saying that Breaking Bad would never have worked if the audience didn’t witness Walter White’s metamorphosis into Heisenberg. The simultaneously busy and lazy Power bears that notion out with a lead character who seems to have entirely too much of the titular quality to win the audience’s investment in what happens to him next. But it does answer the old question about what to get the man who has everything: less.