Drama is seductive. The greater the risk, the more alluring the situation. Intricate, kinetic storylines make for great entertainment, reeling audiences in because as they build, so does the possibility of the carefully constructed houses of cards falling apart. Power, maybe more than any other show on television, understands the, well, power of potential explosion, and that’s why it’s one of the most addictive shows on television.
Starz’s New York City crime drama has become the network’s phenomenon since its 2014 debut. It started out as a cult hit, but entered last night’s third season premiere as the network’s most popular original program on the heels of season two’s record-setting finale.
The show, created by Courtney A. Kemp and executive produced by co-star Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, explores the city’s layered underworld, highlighting the invisible line separating legal and illegal activity. James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick) is a successful nightlife magnate and drug-dealer who’s trying to cut his criminal ties. Tommy Egan (Joseph Sikora), a childhood friend, is his co-conspirator and the volatile wild card to Ghost’s unflappable businessman.
Tasha (Naturi Naughton), Ghost’s wife and the mother of his three children, is just as smart and manipulative as he is, but never really had his heart. It belongs to Angela Valdez (Lela Loren), an ambitious assistant U.S. attorney driven to corral the city’s drug kingpin until she realizes it’s her lover. Further complicating Ghost’s existence is Kanan (50 Cent), a former mentor who’s out for retribution after Ghost and Tasha conspired to have him sent to prison.
The pressure levied against each character—Ghost, primarily—since the pilot episode has painted them into corners. That mounting tension erupts in season three, leaving a mushroom cloud of drama and scorched earth in its wake. As the main characters deal with the consequences of their decisions, Power offers its strongest season to date. The more tangled Power’s characters get in its web, the better the show gets.
The third season of a show is its most pivotal turn. If the maiden voyage is successful, the second season is about proving that the first wasn’t a fluke. Season three, on the other hand, is about staying power, where the show settles into its identity and rides it out for the remainder of its duration. Power benefits from its characters growing more complex, and, per the usual, no one is closer to the fire than Ghost. Weary of the underworld, he’s spent the better part of two seasons trying to sever all ties to it. Angela has always represented the youthful optimism that was snatched from him, but above that, an escape from his criminal past. But as calculated as Ghost is, he fails to realize that fleeing his old life won’t solve his problems—it’s actually introduced new ones. Adjusting to a public relationship with Angela means adjusting to co-parenting his kids with an estranged, justifiably bitter Tasha. Having Angela means choosing legal over illegal, which means there’s no room for Tommy in his life. No matter which life he’s living, he can’t escape the target on his back.
Ghost has always wanted to be James St. Patrick, exclusively; “Ghost” was the criminal mask he wore to protect himself and his family. That’s who Tasha fell in love with: the more successful Stringer Bell who will get his hands filthy when necessary, although he’d rather not. Now he’s trying his damndest to be “Jamie,” the kid Angela fell in love with as they attempt to live out their doomed adolescent fantasy. Their loyalty has always been to each other, but life has taken them down such divergent paths that a future together is all but impossible. It’s one of the many thorny relationships that makes Power gripping.
Any dive into the inner-workings of the underworld will reveal that internal discord always precedes a downfall. In Power’s universe, loyalty has an asterisk next to it because nearly everyone is sleeping with the enemy. Ghost and Angela’s relationship is predicated on an agreement to ignore each other’s pasts, and their inability to do that is exactly why it can’t work. Angela has learned to look the other way, but can’t stray too far from her responsibility to uphold the law. And as much as Ghost wants to be James/Jamie, underworld ties are hard to erase; someone or something is always trying to drag him back into the fire. Where Power succeeds is in showing how Ghost has to be a chameleon to avoid it. As the show progresses, that means skillfully managing relationships with the former allies he realizes he can’t shake.
As much as Ghost wants to distance himself from these relationships, their past binds all of them together. Power is a chess game where a mistake could be fatal. The stakes are higher when no one around you can be trusted, and you have to outsmart them before they betray you. The main characters dig deeper holes for themselves each season, and the closer they get to being burned by their actions, the more Power develops into one of TV’s most riveting hours.
Drama aside, authenticity has helped make Power a hit. It doesn’t tell a new story, but it tells one that feels real. All of the characters and their motivations feel genuine, flaws and all. Power is also shot on location in New York City, so it absorbs the different qualities of each borough it visits, all the way down to very specific details. “We’ve got dialect coaches that come in and help the actors—when a person is speaking Spanish on Power, we try to differentiate whether he’s Dominican or Puerto Rican, because you can hear it,” 50 Cent told Entertainment Weekly last week. “Those things are really important so people can see themselves in the show.” It’s all part of a recipe that’s helped Power blossom.
Whether you’re embroiled in it, eluding it, or chasing it, crime is poisonous. This truth steers Power’s third season. “It just keeps getting more intense,” Kemp told Variety. “The power dynamics in the show really shift this year. It’s more hard-hitting.” And the show only grows more engrossing—and better—as a result. Starz, once known for giving its original programming a maximum of two seasons before placing it under the guillotine regardless of quality (RIP Boss and Magic City) recognizes what it has in Power: moving it to a Sunday night timeslot to compete with HBO is a vote of confidence.
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