“Empire,” Fox’s soapy hip-hop drama and breakout hit of the 2014-15 television season, won’t be back until Sept. 23.
Fans looking for a summer fling to tide them over should check out Starz’s “Power,” another sexy saga centered on a former corner boy from the ’hood, living large in New York City. Neither man can fully escape his past. Both men’s glamorous empires are built on shaky foundations. These charismatic protagonists are embroiled in some of the most entertaining love triangles on TV. (Although there’s only one delicious Cookie, and it belongs to “Empire.”)
Both shows’ soundtracks are bangin. The casts are diverse. Most importantly, both “Empire” and “Power” are damn good fun. Difference is, it took “Power” longer to get there.
Created by black female showrunner Courtney Kemp Agboh (“The Good Wife”) with an assist from executive producer and rapper 50 Cent, who plays a mean mutha of a thug on the show, “Power” stars Omari Hardwick (“Being Mary Jane”) as James “Ghost” St. Patrick, a drug kingpin and nightclub owner trying to go legit.
Ghost’s cocaine-and-“Call of Duty”-loving, hot-headed right-hand man is played by Chicago native Joseph Sikora, the bad-ass biker named Ginger who accompanied Matthew McConaughey in that now famous six-minute tracking shot in “True Detective.”
Ghost’s wife, Tasha (Naturi Naughton), is no see-no-evil, hear-no-evil Carmela Soprano. Tasha’s a willing accomplice when it comes to her husband’s criminal activity, provided he stays loyal to her and brings home enough bacon to keep their kids in fancy private schools and her walk-in closet well stocked with Louboutins and Louis Vuitton.
Ghost’s childhood sweetheart and mistress, Angela Valdes (Lela Loren), has no idea how her lover really makes his scratch. This assistant U.S. attorney also has no idea she’s sleeping with the very man she’s hunting as part of a secretive task force aimed at taking down the head of a Mexican drug cartel.
That might not be the most believable scenario ever presented on the small screen, but it sure makes for some compelling tension. More believable and equally compelling is the way “Power” portrays the duplicity and delicate diplomacy that fuels New York City’s drug-distribution network.
These fraught-with-peril storylines gathered steam throughout season one’s eight episodes. They reached a full-blown boil in Saturday’s high-octane season two premiere, which set a new ratings records at Starz with 1.4 million viewers tuning in.
That’s more than triple the number who watched the series opener last June. It’s also a sizeable spike — 32 percent — over the freshman run’s finale. The audience grew to 3.6 million when you count reruns and DVR playback over the weekend.
While impressive digits for Starz, those numbers pale in comparison to the ratings monster that is “Empire.” That Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson hit averaged 13 million viewers last season. It’s not really a fair fight, though. Fox’s “Empire” airs on broadcast TV, while “Power” is a premium cable product available to fewer eyeballs.
The series’ different home networks doesn’t just affect their ratings. It affects their content, too. “Power” takes full advantage of its long leash on nudity, language and violence, resulting in a bloodier, grittier, more “adult” show than “Empire.” Not better, per se. Just different — yet similar enough to satisfy those pangs of withdrawal you might be feeling until the fall.
Season two of “Power” (expanded to 10 episodes from last year’s eight) airs at 8 p.m. Central/9 p.m. Eastern Saturday on Starz. More is on the way: Starz announced that the show has been picked up for a third season.
Rating: (4 / 5)
Note: A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston wasn’t a huge fan of “Power” when it debuted last year (same here), but it’s grown on him (and me). Read Alston’s insightful take on the season two premiere. And good news: He’ll be writing weekly “Power” reviews this season.