Courtney Kemp, the creator of Starz’s Power, is fired up. “I want people yelling at the screen! I want them to be pissed, I want them to be excited, I want them to be happy," Kemp told Complex over the phone. "I want them to have a really intense emotional response.” Mission accomplished.
Power, now in its third season, has turned into a huge hit for Starz, breaking the channel’s season premiere record by nearly one million viewers in July when season three began. Ever since, it has stayed within the top five shows watched on Sundays so far this year, according to TV By The Numbers. The 50 Cent-produced and-starring nighttime soap is both a love story and a coming-to-age tale about New York City’s biggest drug dealer. The show thrives on getting a reaction: Mainly, it makes people want to jump through their TV screens. Since they can’t do that, Power’s social media savvy fanbase takes to their Twitter and Facebook to talk through their feelings, guiding a whole new fanbase to the show. The digital word of mouth has acted as a magnet for Power: People notice their timelines blowing up on Sunday nights and feel peer-pressured into finally giving the show a chance. Once they start watching, the addiction begins.
81,000 tweets about the show were fired off during this season’s premiere episode, according to Nielsen statistics; the show has averaged 40,666 tweets an episode since. Power’s ability to be equally satisfying and frustrating, to create moments that bring chaos to the social media water cooler, has made it one of cable’s most thrilling two-screen experiences.
After cultivating a viral fanbase online, Power is starting to see its rabid following permeate the real world. I tagged along with part of the cast—Lela Loren, Joseph Sikora, Naturi Naughton, and Omari Hardwick—on a summer day as they promoted season three, and the fervor that followed them as they went from Wendy Williams to NBC’s NY Live was surreal. The in-studio audience at the former could hardly contain themselves, especially when it came to Hardwick and Sikora. “We’ve got some die hard fans—it’s crazy,” Naughton told Complex.
It’s been a slow build, but Power and its stars are now in the rarefied air of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, shows that are all-consuming—being a fan basically qualifies as a lifestyle choice. Power is a television show, but it’s in the process of becoming a movement. The main players in this modern-day, made-for-TV Carlito’s Way, an age old tale of not being able to outrun your past, are Ghost, Tommy, Tasha, Angela, Kanan, and Holly, but the characters are mere chess pieces for Kemp to manipulate. Kanan seemed to die in a fire, but survived; another character, Lobos, secretly lived through an assassination attempt. Kemp is a master con artist and we, the viewers, are the ultimate marks, falling for every twist, trick and cliffhanger even when we can see them coming.
With the lack of African-American representation on television, and with FOX’s Empire falling from grace with both critics and fans during its second season, Power has filled a void. “We’ve had over 6.9 million viewers across all platforms: television, DVR, the Starz app,” Naughton, who plays Tasha, said, beaming with pride over last season’s average numbers. “People are watching it everywhere and every way—they’re subscribing to Starz chiefly for Power.”
The main character Ghost, played by Omari Hardwick, is in a constant struggle with his criminal past and the future he so desperately desires. He just wants to be James St. Patrick (his government name), legitimate club owner, and goes to great lengths to rid himself of his alter-ego, the NYC drug king, as well the people he perceives to be dead weight.
I mention Power’s similarities with the 1993 film Carlito’s Way to Hardwick, and he confirms it's a major reference for the show. “Carlito almost got away, then he died. You can’t outrun karma.” This is the lesson that Power, like many tragic works of classic literature, teaches us: One must pay for their past sins. Power attests that no one lives in a vacuum—every action has an equal reaction, and every decision carries consequences that affect countless people and countless relationships—particularly for Ghost and the women in his life.
Hardwick was sold on Power when 50 Cent explained to him what the show’s thesis was. “It’s going to be a show about what power really means,” Hardwick recalls 50 telling him. “As quick as you get power, you can lose it just as fast. The characters only have it for a minute, and that makes it a better show.”
And don't forget the sex, money, murder, and mayhem—all things necessary for both good gangster TV and good Twitter fun. "I think we have a lot of really good components to our show that are set up for social media,” said Sikora. Plot twists are immediately followed by knee-jerk reaction tweets ranging from serious analysis to GIFs to memes. Pro TV tip: If you play with people’s emotions, they’ll tweet about them. Fueling the fire even further, Kemp and the cast have been live-tweeting the show since season one, making themselves uniquely available to the people who love their show.
“50 Cent gets people to stop, look, and listen.”
50 Cent, who doubles as executive producer and the character Kanan, knows all too well the power of social media. He’s used the platform to promote his music, his vodka, and every other business venture he finds himself in.
“The energy that is around Power—they haven’t felt that in how long? People are passionate about the show," he told Complex over the phone. "It’s partly because that telephone is in their hand and the awareness is higher because of the social networking presence.”
Unsurprisingly, he’s also involved with the show’s soundtrack—he used Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly as inspiration. “That film has probably the best soundtrack that was ever made,” he says. “There were points when the character didn’t have to say anything—the music would play and tell you what he’s thinking.”
50 launched his rap career in 1999 by manufacturing beef and controversy with debut single “How To Rob”; 17 years later, with Power, he's doing the same thing online. Last year, he was embroiled in a back and forth with Taraji P. Henson of Empire. 50 complained on social media that Empire was biting Power’s marketing, particularly its tagline and artwork, which then led to Taraji’s character Cookie to throw hilarious shade on the premiere episode of season two with this art-imitating-life line: “50 Cent still taking jabs at us. Look what he put on the 'Gram. Thirsty ass.”
“50 gets people to stop, look, and listen,” Sikora said with a laugh.
And look they certainly did. In this season’s fourth episode, a scene appears to show 50’s penis. The rapper protested on Instagram that he wasn’t aware the scene was going to be in the episode, blasting Kemp. In a series of now deleted Instagram posts 50 accused her of the old bait and switch, writing, “The shit wasn’t in the first three edits, all of a sudden wala magic." He even referred to Kemp as a “bitch." The showrunner fired back with a post of her own saying, “You signed the waiver just like everybody else.” Is he really mad, or is it just another 50 scheme to get people's attention? If it's the latter, it's working.
But 50’s dick aside, at the core of season three's story is James St. Patrick possibly, finally, killing off Ghost. But that won't stop Ghost’s relationships from being complicated. When I asked Sikora, who plays Ghost’s partner-in-crime Tommy, what viewers can look forward to this season, he laughed: “Tommy killing Ghost.”
If Tommy does actually kill Ghost, Twitter will ignite. And Kemp will stand next to the firestorm with a grin on her face, pouring more gasoline on it. Either way, we’ll all be tweeting the aftermath.