Power (Starz) Series Premiere 2014 Review

Judging a series by its pilot is almost impossible. Truly exemplary pilots are rare (Lost is the first example that pops into my mind); while your typical pilot is by its very nature an exercise in expository storytelling. In one hour the writer has to tell us who the characters are, set up their journey and add enough punch to bring us back the following week. Power is an example of a weak pilot. The parts for a good story are all there, but the first hour is exposition theater as presented by several actors who simply do not live up to the towering presence that is Omari Hardwick’s Ghost.

The premise is Ghost, a man who grew up poor in New York City and climbed the ranks of the drug trade, opens his own nightclub. All of the people in his life from his bored wife to his partner in crime view the club as just another way for Ghost to present a legitimate face to the world. It is not the business, it is a front for the real business, which is the drug trade. However, Ghost harbors dreams of going straight and he wants the nightclub to be his way out. Late in the episode he runs into his old flame, Angela, who succeeded in escaping the hood to become a top notch lawyer. No points for deducing she is tasked with looking for Ghost even though she does not realize her ex-boyfriend is conducting business with the head of New York’s Mexican drug cartel.

Have we all seen this story play out in movies and on the small screen before? Absolutely. Therein lies the problem with Power‘s pilot. As a series that has a multicultural cast and utilizes bilingual storytelling it could introduce something new to the world of premium cable. At the same time it is living in the shadow of The Wire and Breaking Bad, two iconic series that took on the horrifying effects the drug trade can have on both a personal and community level.

Ghost is a man who dug himself out of poverty by peddling drugs on the street and eventually turning his street skills into an empire for his family. Unfortunately, his gains come at the expense of the community he left behind. Putting guns and drugs into the hands of more impoverished people only forces the cycle to continue. Ghost’s buddy Tommy notes that he loves the work. Unlike Ghost, he has not changed the way he dresses, speaks or carries himself. He wants to live the gangster life. Likewise, Ghost’s wife Tasha wants everything to stay exactly as it is, she wants the money and power that comes from Ghost’s position as New York City’s leading drug lord– even though she has three children who are at risk every day because of their father’s line of work.

Power‘s mistake in the pilot is it is telling a story on a micro level when it does not have the characters to support such a narrow worldview. As Ghost, Hardwick is full of charisma, self-loathing and confusion. He is standing at a crossroads unsure if he wants to be the kind of man who kills other men or the kind of man who follows in his father’s footsteps by running a club that thrives on good music (and good women– misogyny is as ever present in the pilot as it is in rap culture). The character is cliched, but he is elevated enough by Hardwick’s performance to genuinely make me interested in what choice he will make and what it will ultimately cost him.

The rest of the people in his life are far less interesting, at least for most of the running time. Power, like Showtime’s Ray Donovan, is a male-dominated antihero tale created by a woman, in this case Courtney Kemp Agboh. Maybe I go into these stories carrying too many expectations for the creators. It excites me to see women heading up series that have historically been led by men and I cannot help but hope that means they will bring a new vision to familiar stories. When they follow the pre-set playbook, I inevitably become disappointed.

For instance, Tasha, the most prominent female character in the series was in the running for being the most annoying television character I have seen in quite some time, with Tommy coming in a close second. She sighed, she rolled her eyes at the amount of money the club was drawing in, she whined– it was a horrible parody of real housewife syndrome. Then in the final act, it was revealed Tasha knew exactly what she was in for when she married Ghost and she wanted to live off the blood money and be a part of the organization. When Ghost asked her to burn his bloodstained t-shirt her face lit up. Tasha wants to be Ghost’s partner in every sense of the word, as she puts it, when she married him 15 years ago, she wanted to marry the most powerful drug dealer in New York City. Now that is how you draw a fascinating female character, can the actress carry the weight? That is a question for another day. Angela did not need as much fleshing out–I did cringe when she agreed with her intrusive co-worker/boyfriend that “most women would love knowing someone was looking out for them”–but I got the sense that was the point.

While Power‘s pilot was largely a meandering mess of tropes, the final act had the punch I was looking for. It is not a show that is doing anything new or even compelling, but the kernel of potential is there if you know where to look. Whether or not Power will be powerful or merely another show about a bad man who wants to be someone else remains to be seen.

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