When Starz's Power debuted in 2014, it drew just 460,000 live viewers. The series, which follows the complicated life of a club owner named Ghost (Omari Hardwick), who also happens to be a top New York City drug dealer balancing two very different women, immediately began growing in the ratings, finishing its first season with just over 1 million live viewers. And when it returned for season two in June 2015, it boasted 1.43 million live viewers — an increase of more than 200 percent.
Yet Power's success has gone largely unacknowledged (including by myself, until this moment). Meanwhile, its Starz sister series Outlander generally lures in fewer viewers (though it's also quite successful, by the network's standards) but receives far more media attention. And this is in an era when the increasing diversity of TV has been heavily reported on — even though Power is the one drama series on pay cable with a black lead.
To better understand why some of this might be happening, I spoke with Courtney Kemp Agboh, Power's creator and showrunner, at the recent Austin Television Festival. We discussed TV diversity, the show's media reception (or lack thereof), and her general theories of storytelling. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Why Starz looks for underserved audiences
Todd VanDerWerff: Traditionally, pay cable hasn't had a great history with stories about people of color. What made Starz the right place to tell this story?
Courtney Kemp Agboh: Well, Chris [Albrecht, Starz head; former HBO head] actually has a pretty good history with people of color. If you think about The Wire, or if you think about Def Comedy Jam, or him putting Chris Rock's big specials or Martin Lawrence's specials on HBO, it's not as revolutionary. It's just the same guy. You know what I mean?
That is what's sad, though, is that it's the same guy. When I pitched the show, I actually had to pitch the show first at another premium cable network. I won't say which one. I was told, in the meetings, that this wasn't really a demographic that they needed. Why? Viewers are viewers. Subscribers are subscribers. You know? I couldn't understand it.
Starz, I think, very much wanted to look at underserved areas. Right now, they're doing the same thing with us that they're doing with Outlander. Women who watch Outlander, those fans of the book series, they're a specific demo. They were like, "We're going to go get those women," and they got them. It's like putting a McDonald's snack wrap on the menu. Not everybody wants a burger.
Why diversity on TV shouldn't be just a "trend"
TV: Obviously, there are a lot of cable dramas about men who are criminals. But there's also a history of TV presenting black men as drug dealers without really examining them as people. How do you tell a story about a black man who is a drug dealer without being reductive?
CKA: Ghost is complicated. He's on the poster in a suit. There's a certain rarefied air that the show lives in. It lives in a glossiness that allows it to be — even though it is gritty in some places — an entry for people who might not necessarily want to watch a show that's just about the grit.
The show's about some universal themes, too. It's about the one that got away. It's about, Does my past dictate my future? Can I change? The show's really about the American dream. Can I have nothing, and become something, and if I become this something, can it wash away what that was? It's about the path not taken. What if Ghost had not decided to deal drugs?
That's what the show's really about. I'm talking about these larger themes, and then I'm putting the entertaining shit on top of it. The drug dealing and the guns and the sex and the violence, and all that stuff — that's the cool, fun shit, but what I'm really talking about is, Are you a good person or a bad person, or is there any such thing?
There was a point at which the only black people on TV were the two black kids at the front of every Law & Order, who might have done it. Then we were only judges, or the head doctor at the hospital, or the nice social worker. We were only good.
I think we're past that now. I think people of color, in general, can be complicated, not dissimilarly from the fact that women on TV used to either be the DA, or the hot chick, or the mom. Now women can be more complicated.
Gay characters used to only be the swishy best friend, and that was it, and now we've gone beyond that. One of the things that The Good Wife did was, Alicia's brother is gay. He's also a total fucking jerk, and it's okay. It's okay that he's both. It's fine that he can be gay, and everybody's cool with it. And then he can be a dick, period, and that's okay. The scariest character in my show is a gay Latin man. We get to tell complicated stories now, however it is.
TV: There's a lot of talk right now about diversity in television. It gets treated a lot as a trend, in a lot of ways.
CKA: Oh my god. Can I just say, giant eyeroll! Yes! Yes, yes, yes.
TV: How do you feel about diversity being viewed as a way for networks to improve their ratings, instead of as something important to advocate for in and of itself?
CKA: The important color in TV is green. It will always be that. I think that youth, people who are under 34, let's say, really don't give a shit what color people are. I mean, the success of Grey's Anatomy, in and of itself, should show that people aren't as attached to the need for everyone on TV to be white.
That's changing, and I think the idea that we're catching up to the fact that the world is changing. Also, the country's doing better in some ways, so people have more discretionary income, and that means, "Oh, hey. I can sell these black people a Buick. Awesome." I really think that some of it we have to look at economics. We do have to look at economics, and we do have to pay attention to those economics and not pretend that it's a trend.
I find that a lot of the outlets of color, a lot of the black or Latina outlets, sometimes, will be like, "Well, isn't this great. We're finally getting our voices." I'm like, "Stop ghettoizing the content. Let's not talk about it as a trend. Let's just talk about it as good shows."
You know what I mean? Let's not tokenize the content. Let's not talk about it as like, this is a crazy, wild thing that's happening. It's just storytelling. There's not been a show about a big Italian-American family on TV since The Sopranos. Nobody's wondering about where that show is. We like to tell stories about crime, and we like that stuff. This is what America looks like.
Yes, the headlines are out there, but when you think about it, Empire's a really good soap. People like to watch really good soaps. People like to watch people get slapped. They enjoy that. People like to watch people die. That's why Grey's Anatomy, and hospital shows, do well. People like to watch things that have high stakes. We have a very fast-paced TV world right now.
People really like that instant gratification, and they like that "Oh, shit!" moment, and they like to call their friend, and be like, "Oh, girl, did you just fucking see that?" People love that. That's what TV is right now, and it comes in all different forms.
Why did the media miss the show's rise?
TV: Almost every week of Power's first season, it built in the ratings, but it feels like there wasn't a lot of noise surrounding it in the media. What was that like, to be in a world where you knew people were catching on but you weren't hearing about it anywhere?
CKA: Yeah, we were ignored, and I didn't know why. It's a major launch from a premium cable network, wasn't covered. I actually don't know. As a journalist, because I started in journalism, I was like, "What's happening, guys?"
I had one interaction with someone. I'll never forget this. He was a TV reporter, he was at the TCAs [the Television Critics Association press tour] this year, and he was like, "I don't know why I should cover your show." I didn't even know what to say to that. He's like, "I don't think my readers are going to be interested in it." I said, "Have you seen it?" He said, "Well, no." I said, "Well, maybe you should watch it. Maybe you should report."
It definitely was a concern, but I also knew something else, which is that our core audience, are a lot of tastemakers. These are people who find something, and then it becomes cooler in the culture. When Questlove started following me on Twitter, when those things started to happen, I was like, "People will catch up." If Questlove loves the show, then he's going to tell Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Fallon is going to eventually have somebody from my show on his show. It's just going to take time. As long as we don't get canceled first, it's going to work out.
TV: You debuted pretty low in the ratings, and sometimes we television reporters get it in our heads that shows fall after their debut, but you built. Did you have a sense that was happening, even before the numbers started coming in?
CKA: Every day, I say a specific prayer that's about, like, what can I control, what can I not control? I can't control who's going to watch it, so when [the viewership increase] started to happen, and people around me started to get excited, I was, like, "I'm so glad you're excited about it, but I'm going to go make more television." You know, because that's my job.
I did start to get a sense that people knew about it. [Starz airs these segments] after the show where I talk about the episode, and somebody stopped me, and they were like, "Are you from that show Power?" That was when I was like, "Oh, wow. Okay." That had never happened to me before.
I've been on shows at both ends of the spectrum, because I worked on My Own Worst Enemy, which was on for, like, a cough. Literally, someone went [coughs] and it was off. I worked on The Good Wife, and I went to the Emmys. I've been in all of those different places. It was an interesting thing to see this happen, absolutely, but I did try to keep my ego out of it, because it's not really about me, you know?
How to tell stories in the world of Power
TV: There are a lot of story similarities between Power and Breaking Bad. In particular, both shows have to work around delaying the inevitable, since their protagonists can't be brought down until the show is over. Do you ever feel hamstrung by that?
CKA: I flirt with the idea, definitely, of killing pretty major characters, or putting them in pretty bad situations, because I think audiences are hip. I think audiences are ready and wise. For me, that Ned Stark death in Game of Thrones was just like ... I didn't read the books, so I'm there as a TV fan, and I'm going, "Oh, shit. You just killed number one on the call sheet. How the fuck are you going to tell the story?"
Now, they have books. I don't. Hint: Omari's job is safe. I hope we have set the stakes so high on Power that while you're watching the second season, or you're watching hopefully more seasons, and certain things happen, you're not going to go, "Well, I didn't see that coming." You're going to go, "I didn't see that coming, and oh, shit, I can't believe they did that, and oh, shit, how are they going to write themselves out of that?"
I think sometimes you really need to force a paradigm shift in the show, but be good to the audience. Let them have that moment. On Game of Thrones, they did a really good job of allowing us to grieve Ned, with the characters, so that we could, technically, move on emotionally. They didn't just do it, and then leave us alone.
TV: The show's ideas about a double life are developed through the two women in Ghost's life. This is a really masculine show, so what do you see as the role of the women in it?
CKA: Do you think it's a masculine show?
TV: I do, but that may just be because of myself being a male, that's what I'm attracted to, and what I attach to.
CKA: We have so many female fans, and I feel like we have female fans, because I'm writing it, maybe — meaning that there are aspects of it that are more female or feminized.
If you're just talking about the top four cast, each of them is a lead. Each of them is a full investment from me, in terms of how we do it. So the women have an ability to symbolize, maybe paths, certainly. That's an old-school storytelling trick. It's [like] The Good Wife, [where] Peter and Will symbolize things too. Freedom, tradition, what kind of woman am I, what kind of man am I? Very similar.
I think these women, Angela and Tasha, they're not stupid. They're not naive. They're really smart. They're sexy. They're strong. They're vulnerable. I try to make them pretty equal, pretty egalitarian across the board, but where you come from is where you come from. I think you can come from a lot of different places. There are a lot of women online who are like, Team Angela, Team Tasha, because they identify with those people.
The end of season one and the start of season two
TV: What was a plot twist that came up in your writers' room, where you were like, "That's going right in the show"?
CKA: One of my rules of TV is that you give the audience what they're expecting and then you bump it. For example, in the season finale of season one, you know Ghost is going to get shot at. The end of [episode] seven, Kanan [played by producer 50 Cent] tells Pink Sneakers, "Go shoot him." That gun has got to go off. Chekhov would kill me. Right?
Here's the thing. You also probably think we're not going to Ned Stark him. You're like, "He's going to get shot at." In a way, we're building toward this sort of non-climax, because you know he's going to get shot at, but you don't think we're going to kill the lead of the show in this particular series.
So it wasn't just, okay, he's going to get shot. It was, Holly [Tommy's girlfriend] is going to get shot, and what does that mean for our characters? We decided that before she did that, she was going to say, "Ghost" in the club, and that was going to be really important.
TV: At the end of the season two premiere, I really did have that moment where I thought Ghost was going to kill his mistress, Angela, but then he didn't. How do you walk up to the edge of that, then pull back, and keep it interesting?
CKA: We talked about would he do it, and the thing is, the reason he doesn't do it is because he doesn't know whether or not she played him, and until he knows that for sure, he can't do it.
It's an emotional reason, it's not a logical reason, and that is, for me, the thing that the audience needs to know too. The audience knows that she's in love with him, because they're with her alone, but he isn't. I felt like, could he do it? He didn't want to do it. I think being on that emotional journey is really interesting.
Yes, the big exclamation point would have been if he'd gone in there and shot her, but on some level, I feel like if he had done that, I would have broken faith with the audience, because I sold them a love story. If I say to you, as the viewer, "Yeah, he just shot her," aren't you going to be like, [skeptical] "For real? Because I just saw that scene where he found out. He looked pretty fucking devastated."
New episodes of Power air Saturday nights at 9 pm Eastern on Starz. You can find a list of upcoming showings here.