Much like you, Courtney Kemp does not have time to watch all the things on all the networks and streaming services right now — or, really, ever. “The truth is, I watch so little TV,” she says over the phone. “I don’t experience content in the way that other people do.”
The age of too much television has fully transitioned into an age of too many streaming platforms and excess as the norm. But providing escape and, nowadays, convenience, are key to holding the attention of distractible viewers. Why not build an entire universe?
As creator and showrunner on Starz’ Power, Kemp assembled a network of corrupt characters around coldhearted drug dealer and entrepreneur James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), whose relentless state of limbo caused devastation across six seasons. Kemp saw her show become the number one premium cable show among Black viewers — with an additional cult following made possible by the sovereignty of streaming.
Power Book II: Ghost premiered in September as the first of four spin-offs (Power Book III: Raising Kanan, Power Book IV: Influence, and Power Book V: Force). The current first installment follows Ghost’s crooked, enterprising son Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.) a love-to-hate favorite among Power fans.
Ahead of last night’s midseason finale, LEVEL spoke with Kemp about Tariq’s evolution, streaming’s consequences, and Power’s longevity — as a source of both entertainment and employment for Black folks and people of color.
LEVEL: I wanted to start with a very basic but existential question. How do you define television in 2020, and what makes for good TV now?
Courtney Kemp: Oh, God. [Laughs]. Let me answer the second one first, which is what makes good TV right now. I think escape, frankly. I feel like we’re all trapped in a documentary that we don’t know the end of yet, so it’s nice to have a little escape from that when you can. When I have been watching television, I’ve been watching Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Something that takes me completely out of my own personal experience right now and into something that is just fun and a high-wire act in terms of tone. I think tone is what really determines great television, because people can try to do different kinds of soaps, different kinds of medical shows, whatever, but it’s really striking the right tone that connects with the audience, that gets you that resonance, that gets you that catharsis, that gets people where they live. And then, how do I define television? Oh, I don’t know. [Laughs]. Is Quibi television? I would say… a screen story told in installments.
I did try Quibi out for a bit and just could not get into it. I didn’t find it user-friendly. I’m curious what you think of that experiment. I would talk about it with people, and they would be like, oh, is that television?
This is so hard for me to answer because the truth is, I watch so little TV. I don’t experience content in the way that other people do. Some young people on my writing staff are consuming everything and trying all these different platforms. I’m just like, yo, I can’t, is there a good West Wing rerun on? I’m one of those people who can’t watch anything without going: Why that casting, or why that angle, or why did they use that shot? It’s like being in an adult community education class after doing a whole day of work on the same topic.
Something I’ve been thinking about is whether people want escape or if they want to lean into darkness. And maybe it’s a mixture of the two. One thing that comes to mind is how I May Destroy You was such a big show this summer. It was a dark comedy during a dark time, and people leaned into it.
Going into darkness is a form of escape in and of itself. They’re not opposing ideas. When you create a television show, you’re trying to create a universal experience, and it’s not the universal experience in that it’s a universal tale — it’s that the thing that’s underneath it, whether it’s about resolving issues with your family or courage or loss, is universal human emotion.
The next piece of it is that a television experience should provide catharsis, provide some level of reunion or release of your own emotional journey. That can happen with anything. When Bambi’s mother dies, people have an emotional reaction to that. Why? You’re not a deer. I think 2020 has been pretty dark overall, and pushing past that dark and further into the darkness provides catharsis.
“Tariq’s parents are Ghost and Tasha. His godfathers are Kanan and Tommy. What did you expect him to be?”
Maybe part of that darkness is the extension of Power into its own universe. What challenges have you found with building this new web of characters?
I’m running Ghost, the one that you’re watching right now, but there are other showrunners on the other shows, and I have great producers, writers, directors. It’s about quality control and creating jobs.
I was told very early in my career that the best TV shows are a teaching hospital — and that means we should teach everyone. As you teach, people become independent and are able to make the decisions that you would make. The “universe” is about learning a language, and once we all speak the same language, then I’m able to walk away and let people be creative within that space. We provide the black-and-white lines, and then everyone can color it in as they see fit, whether you’re running Raising Kanan or Force or Influence.
How would you describe the show’s language now?
I’m always talking about oh shit moments. I want the audience to have a bunch of oh shit moments, and those don’t have to always be somebody got a bullet in the head. It doesn’t have to always be sex. It’s about emotional revelations, too.
There’ve been lots of sex scenes between Black characters on the show. Now that’s more frequent on TV, but when Power first began that was a language that I think appealed to people.
There’s a lot to be said about the lack of sexuality between characters of color that we saw, at least on premium television, prior to Power. My focus was always on female sexuality. I didn’t want to make the sex scene that you always see in television or in movies, where it’s about the male orgasm. I wanted to tell sex scenes much more from a female perspective about what intercourse feels like and how you demonstrate that on screen, and I think we were very successful with that.
Power Book II is led by Tariq, a character who many fans hated from the original show. How do you build a show around a character like that?
Wow. I don’t see him that way at all, so I sort of don’t know how to answer the question.
No, I don’t. I really don’t see the character that way. I don’t want to say I object to the question…
No, it’s fine if you do.
Let me try to address it in a different way. Tariq’s journey is complicated. But Tariq’s journey is fully informed by everything that’s happened to him since the beginning of Power Book I, so if you were following the narrative of the show and you hate Tariq, then you missed something. Because Tariq is not… he’s complicated. He’s made some mistakes, huge mistakes. I think the biggest mistakes that he made were about not trusting his parents, but how could he trust his parents? They had lied to him his whole life. He was always under the influence of someone who was telling him the wrong thing to do. Like, does that resonate for you? Did you watch the show?
I did, yeah. I’m watching.
So a number of things happen, and the first thing that really takes him down this path is that Shawn is murdered, and no one explained to him why or what happened. One of the things that I’ve seen in the feedback from Ghost is: Oh, wow, I didn’t think I would be able to come around on Tariq. But if you look at what Tariq has done, Tariq has tried to come forward, tried to tell the truth, tried to be a man. Tariq has put himself in a whole bunch of situations where people were telling him what to do. Tommy told him what to do. Kanan told him what to do. But at the end of the day, you know what Tariq did? He obeyed his mother to some extent. She would have pulled the trigger on Ghost if he didn’t. That’s kind of why I object to your question.
I’m basing this on next-day conversations with friends and what pops up on Twitter. But you’re saying he’s clearly had this life in which so many of his decisions are influenced by the network that he grew up in.
His parents are Ghost and Tasha. His godfathers are Kanan and Tommy. What did you expect him to be? For me, it’s that. And there’s also another piece of this, which is that he’s a teenager. What 16-year-old makes good choices? I think sometimes people are evaluating him with the same level of evaluation that they would give to like a LaKeisha, where they’re like, “Keisha, you should know better because Tommy is this or that.” Well, she’s not in those scenes. You [as the viewer] know everything.
I think sometimes for me when people say they hate Tariq… and people don’t say that as much anymore, by the way, since Ghost premiered. I think people are really understanding because he’s got a very clear perspective, which is: “I want to come forward and say, it’s me that [killed Ghost]. My mother will not let me, and I need to try to get her out.” Very clean, you know. Very simple.
He’s coming into his own, and I can agree with that.
If we’re going to go off social, it’s very difficult because in the beginning of Power, we didn’t have the social media response like we do now, and so I had to be my own North Star and stay true to the storytelling. I can’t tailor the show to social media, but what I can say is: This works and this doesn’t work. If there’s anything in this interview that I would want you to print, it’s that I’m super grateful for the response, and I’m grateful for the fans, and I’m even grateful when people say they hate things because it means they watched. I think there’s something that you’re saying, too, that I want to point out, which is why should the main character be likable? Is that the standard you held Walter White to?
Unlikable characters increasingly became the standard of television, the immoral kind of gray-area characters.
I think it’s just not a useful way of describing a character: likable or unlikable. Because I think if you drilled down underneath that, characters are interesting and fun to watch when you understand their motivation, period. What you need to be able to do is understand their motivation. Not like it, not agree with it, but understand it.
When Power premiered in 2014, streaming TV was still in its relative infancy. By now, the shift that streaming created has affected everything from broadcast networks to premium cable. What has streaming done for you?
When I started, Power was part of a linear package that a lot of people had to get on top of HBO and Cinemax. You had to pay more to get Starz. The fact that now you can subscribe to Starz Play streaming and get it allows us much more opportunity to reach people.
We could never get an accurate count of how many people were watching the show for real in the first few years, because people were having Power parties. If you have 15 people come over to your house to watch Power, Nielsen only counted that as two people. That was something that we had to get around — we had all these hidden viewers that we couldn’t count.
Do you think streaming has made things more equitable in any way in terms of control, access, opportunity?
I think there’s more outlets. And because there’s more outlets, there’s more shows. And because there’s more shows, there’s more opportunities for somebody to get on. I think there have been more shows from people of color of late because it’s been demonstrated that you can make money doing that. But in most cases, the people making the greenlight decisions have not changed yet. Tara Duncan is running Freeform now; Pearlena [Igbokwe] is a chairman now at NBC Universal — as things are changing, that’s going to change, but it’s taking time.
One thing that’s been coming up is the idea of ownership and transparency in Hollywood among creators. How do we make sure that people who have great ideas can have ownership of those ideas, especially people of color, and that they can have control?
Your question implies that there’s a way to construct it so that there’s more creative freedom. But creative freedom comes with success — or at least it has traditionally, so if you prove that your taste or your talent appeals to a large amount of people, then people start to trust your taste and your talent, but it’s individual. So few people of color have been invited to the dance thus far in history that it was hard to see their taste and talent. Now, more of us are getting the shot, and so their taste and talent are being proven, and then they get more creative freedom. In other words, HBO watches The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, and there’s hours and hours of that, so it’s very easy to go, “Okay, we’ll greenlight Insecure.” But Issa [Rae] had to make that on her own to get that positioning so that someone would believe in her taste and her talent.
What do you think, then, has improved for Black creators specifically? Where have some of the challenge been eased?
I can’t answer that in a real way, because the answer is it’s not better for us. It’s that the content makes money, so people want to make more of the content. The things that are changing are like, “Oh if I don’t include a person of color then there will be a backlash, or “If I don’t have a show of color there will be backlash,” or “If I don’t try to include women directors there will be a backlash.” Some of that is change, and people have to pay attention to it. When you ask a question like, “How are things better for Black creators?” I mean, there’s a lot of content out there now for us to choose from.
If you think about the blaxploitation era, people were openly talking about and putting money into making Shaft, and it would be short-sighted of us right now to be like, oh, this is the moment and it will continue. For example, the Power universe, I decided in part that we needed to do this now. 50 [Cent] is very wise in the sense that he’s like, anything that we do will be great. He’s really positive, and he’s got this great entrepreneurial spirit. But I’m a writer. Writers are self-loathing by nature, and I said, “We gotta do this now because we don’t know when the door will be open again.” The way 50 said it is, “If you’re already in the bank, you might as well take the money.” This was the moment where everything lined up for me as an African American female creator and mother to walk through the door of being able to build a business and to bring these shows to our audience, who want this content. But that doesn’t mean that it will last forever.
I hope it does. I’m just not a cockeyed optimist, and I’ve seen it go so many ways. When I started in this business, there was one Black person on every TV show staff, one of us. And then all of a sudden, there were two. There was also a lot of times one woman, and then sometimes there were two. I think a lot of times the old chestnuts around African American or Latino content were always, “Well, it doesn’t appeal to quote-unquote the mainstream.” But what they found over time is that the mainstream, especially the younger mainstream, doesn’t care about that. They’ll watch anything that’s good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.