The curtain will soon fall on two long-running African American dramas, both flavored by hip-hop and family dysfunction. The higher-profile series is trying to shake off declining ratings and a staggering controversy. But it’s the underdog going into its farewell season with the swagger of a champion.
This fall, Fox will launch the sixth and final season of “Empire,” once TV’s hottest drama. Although the series, which debuted in 2015, still has a loyal following, its viewership has declined, and the show in recent months has been clouded by the case of costar Jussie Smollett, who was accused of staging an apparent hate crime against himself in January. (Prosecutors subsequently dropped felony charges against Smollett.) The actor will not be in the cast when “Empire” returns.
Although newly appointed Fox Entertainment chief Charlie Collier assured TV reporters earlier this month that “Empire” will “go out with guns a-blazing,” it will be hard to outdo the hoopla surrounding the last season of “Power.” Starz’s glitzy, gritty series about a drug dealer-turned-nightclub owner has become a powerhouse of the premium cable landscape, aiding the network’s relatively recent effort to compete with HBO and Showtime on scripted original programming.
More than 11,000 “Power” devotees jammed into Madison Square Garden — a venue that usually hosts large-scale sporting events and concerts — for the sixth season’s red carpet premiere, which included a concert by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, one of the show’s executive producers, and performances by other musicians. The jubilant crowd cheered throughout the evening, particularly during an “in memoriam” segment that showcased several characters who had been killed, including Jackson’s violent thug, Kanan.
The reception was indicative of the underrated power of “Power.” The show doubled its viewership during its first season in 2014, and has grown each season since. It has remained the most popular series on Starz, which is heavily promoting the 15-episode final run, which starts Sunday, with building wraps and large billboards featuring the glowering black and red images of stars Omari Hardwick and Joseph Sikora, the criminal brothers-in-arms who are now locked in a blood duel.
And although the series is coming to an end, “Power” is surging forward: Pre-production has already begun on “Power Book II: Ghost” featuring singer-actress Mary J. Blige. The as-yet-undisclosed story of the spinoff will pick up a few days after the finale of “Power” and include some of the most “most controversial characters” from the original. Other sequels are planned, including one titled “Raising Kanan.”
“We really believe that with these characters, there’s an opportunity to create a ‘Power’ Cinematic Universe,” said Carmi Zlotnik, president of programming for Starz. “Why should ‘Star Trek’ and Marvel be the only ones? ‘Power’ takes place in the real world.” Zlotnik even has a vision for a possible “Power: Endgame” that would be similar to “Avengers: Endgame,” the April blockbuster that brought together almost every superhero in the Marvel stable.
With its steady mix of rap music, steamy sex scenes and raw violence, “Power,” at its core, is the story of a criminal trying to change, but who’s trapped by his vicious tendencies. Hardwick plays James St. Patrick, whose street name is “Ghost.” When the series starts out, he’s trying to move on beyond his drug dealing by opening a ritzy nightclub called Truth. His focus on the legitimate business irritates his wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), and his white partner, Tommy Egan (Sikora), who want Ghost to pay more attention to his criminal enterprises and make more money.
Further complications erupt when Ghost reunites with his high school sweetheart, Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), who wanders into Truth on opening night. Unhappy in his marriage, Ghost relentlessly purses Angela, unaware that she’s a federal prosecutor dedicated to bringing down a mysterious drug figure — who turns out to be Ghost. The two begin a torrid love affair.
Like “Empire,’ the series was an instant smash, at least by Starz standards. Unlike “Empire,” though, its viewership has grown with each subsequent season, with the fifth averaging 10.8 million viewers per episode across platforms, and showing particular strength with black audiences, according to the network. At the last two NAACP Image Awards, the series won for outstanding drama, triumphing over “This Is Us,” “The Chi,” “Queen Sugar” and other series, and Hardwick has taken home best actor honors the past two years.
But that popularity has not translated to the mainstream — the series has never been nominated for an Emmy, and gets little attention from prominent media outlets, particularly when compared to “Empire,” which, during its heyday, was a pop culture darling. That series had an impressive pedigree, including the involvement of several Oscar nominees, such as stars Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson and creator Lee Daniels (“Precious”).
“‘Empire’ had a certain aura that this show on Starz was not going to get,” said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. “There were no Oscar nominees. It wasn’t going to get the same amount of attention. It’s a grittier show, where ‘Empire’ was more like a soap opera, campy. ‘Power’ was never going to cross over into the mainstream the same way.”
But that void is of little consequence to the powers behind “Power.”
Earlier this month, a few hours before appearing at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, Jackson couldn’t stop smiling as he joked around with Hardwick and series creator and showrunner Courtney A. Kemp in a hotel meeting room. “These are my boys,” said Kemp, constantly hugging the two men. In a later interview, she said she felt “Power” connected with its fans because of its cast and approach to drama.
“At the time we came on, there were very few shows like it with the kind of representation we were doing — multicultural representation,” said Kemp, a former writer and supervising producer on “The Good Wife.” “There’s also our combination of violence, sexuality, family and romance. We’re like a salad. We’re a lot of different things. There’s something for everybody.”
Jackson said that he had a feeling “Power” would strike a chord with audiences. “I feel great,” said Jackson, who has long combined his music career with film work. “You’ve got to put energy into the universe for something like this to happen. I can’t participate if I don’t believe it.”
His initial vision was to develop a series in which music would play a major role: “I really wanted to do a show where I would put good music in to it. There’s so much bad music on television. It’s the last place where they spend money.” Jackson’s reference point was Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack for “Super Fly,” the seminal 1972 blaxploitation film about a drug dealer trying to escape his dangerous life. Mayfield’s music, such as the title song and “Freddie’s Dead,” he said, would often replace dialogue in articulating the thoughts of characters.
The rapper and producer Mark Canton eventually connected with Kemp, and they discussed possible ideas. “We came up with this, which was a combination of my dad’s life and 50 [Cent]'s life.” (Kemp’s father was an advertising executive.) When they made the pitch to then-Starz head Chris Albrecht, Jackson played songs that would represent each character.
“They said, ‘Whoa, this is different,’ and we were in,” Jackson recalled.
Referring to “Breaking Bad,” the Emmy-winning series about a chemistry teacher who gradually transforms into a drug kingpin, Kemp added, “This is ‘Breaking Good.’ This was always constructed as someone who is trying to get out of the life. That’s the universal appeal. I created someone who wanted to get out of the drug life, and then there’s a white guy who is committed to the criminality. Ghost is always moving toward the light, even if it’s slow, even if he takes a couple of steps back. It’s a complicated world, but all of these people are heroes in their own journeys.”
“It’s an American story,” Hardwick said. “From Madoff to O.J and beyond, we’ve all encountered people like Ghost, who want to be big. That’s why people feel connected to it. It’s the desire of a single man who wants to be more.”
Last season ended with a cliffhanger: Tommy, bent on revenge against Ghost due to a perceived betrayal, sees his former best friend kissing Angela in a dark stairwell and takes aim. But the bullet winds up striking Angela in the chest. As Ghost cradles his wounded love in his arms, he spots Tommy and lets out a primal roar.
Whether the final season — billed as “The Final Betrayal” — will get more attention from critics or members of the TV Academy does not seem to matter to the forces behind it.
“I’ve made my peace with it,” Kemp said. “The last thing I would want to do is discount our fans. It matters more that the people who watch the show love it. I’m doing this for them, not for other people.”