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Starz's 'Power' is a ratings powerhouse. Why does it still feel like an underdog?

Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

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 (Sikoura), 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.

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