Starz’s “Power Book II: Ghost,” the first spinoff from parent series “Power,” is settling into an identity that its stubborn predecessor would not. It’s kitsch TV, even though fans and creators (Courtney Kemp and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) tried to convince themselves otherwise. That confusion mimicked the duality of original series star Omari Hardwick’s James “Ghost” St. Patrick, drug kingpin and family patriarch, burdened with a complication Michael Corleone succinctly expressed when he said: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
That original show was no “Godfather.” A tawdry soap opera that took itself too seriously, “Power” aimed for greater heights, unsuccessfully. But its successor is content to be just a caricature of superior crime dramas that came before it.
Heading into the “Power” series finale in early 2020, Starz milked the “Who Killed Ghost?” advertising catchphrase, mobilizing a large, dedicated fanbase that helped make it one of the cabler’s most watched shows ever. In “Book II,” now in its second season, Ghost may be “sleeping with the fishes” — although in the “Power” universe, a resurrection isn’t out of the question — but he looms large throughout.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown, which now belongs to rebellious son Tariq (Michael Rainey Jr.). Desirous of shedding Ghost’s legacy, Tariq insists that he’s not his father’s son, a man he despised enough to kill. Yet, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and the son of Ghost gradually transforms into his version of the ruthless scoundrel-in-disguise his father was.
Tariq’s shenanigans in the franchise’s first series led to his becoming one of television’s most hated characters. Kemp’s challenge was to convince audiences to root for him in this spinoff, but the son of Ghost, as written, doesn’t engender much empathy, nor does he (and therefore the writers) seem to care. A thinly-drawn supporting cast composed of disreputable politicians, attorneys, police officers, college professors, and, of course, drug dealers, power the plotlines. Everyone lives strictly for their own self-interest.
Among the guilty are key players from the original series, including Naturi Naughton as Tasha St. Patrick, Tariq’s mother who beat a prison sentence and is now in protective custody; Shane Johnson as attorney Cooper Saxe, once relentless in his pursuit of Ghost in “Power,” then set his sights on Tariq in the spinoff; Larenz Tate as Councilman Rashad Tate, Ghost’s former political rival, as devious as any politician; and Gianni Paolo as Brayden Weston, Tariq’s best friend and business partner in the “pharmaceutical trade” who lives for the thrill, money, and women.
New major supporting characters to the franchise are Mary J. Blige as Monet Tejada, queenpin of the Tejada drug cartel; Method Man as unscrupulous lawyer Davis Maclean; Melanie Liburd as Carrie Milgram, one of Tariq’s professors who isn’t above sleeping with her students; Justin Marcel McManus as Jabari Reynolds, another of Tariq’s professors who also has no qualms indulging his lustful female undergrads, or plagiarizing his star student’s work; Paige Hurd as Lauren Baldwin, Tariq’s classmate and one of three potential love interests; Woody McClain, Lovell Adams-Gray and LaToya Tonodeo as Monet’s three adult children, Cane, Dru, and Diana, who also has a thing for Tariq; Daniel Bellomy as Ezekiel “Zeke” Cross, Monet’s nephew and NBA prospect and who falls for one of his professors; Sherri Saum as Paula Matarazzo, Maclean’s professional righthand, with whom he’s having an affair; and Alix Lapri as Effie, Tariq’s ex-girlfriend and business partner who still carries a torch for him. That’s a lot.
Peripheral characters who might become increasingly significant as the second season unfolds include Jeff Hephner as Kevin Whitman, a determined detective once romantically involved with professor Milgram; Daniel Sunjata as Mecca, a veteran in the drug game and Monet’s old flame; and Berto Colon as Lorenzo Tejada, the real chief of the Tejada operation, and Monet’s incarcerated husband.
Keep all that straight? There are plenty of others too. It’s a sprawling cast of all-too conveniently interconnected, dodgy characters that populate unnecessary subplots, stretching the already tenuously-strung together series even that much thinner. To be sure, the real world is certainly not bereft of despicable people, but “Power: Book II” suggests that they make up the near entirety of it. It’s a cynicism worthy of exploration, if that was the series’ intent. In fact, “Book II” deserves some recognition for attempting to thematically link Tariq’s plight to that of characters and ideas in major literary works of yesteryear that speak to, broadly, the “human condition.”
The series flirts with philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ argument that people are inherently selfish, even centering the idea as subject of a flimsy debate among students in Tariq’s canonical studies class; as are themes explored by Camus in “The Stranger,” Homer’s “Odyssey,” Melville’s “Moby Dick,” Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” and others. But each instance is so laughably realized in their suggestion that pretentiously quoting, say, Darwin equates to intellectual rigor.
Yes, save for Ellison, the show primarily exalts the philosophies of white male thinkers too, missing the opportunity to foreground Black intellectuals like Frantz Fanon, who wrote extensively on the nature of power, identity, and Blackness, all themes that “Power Book II” only superficially assesses. It’s too busy with what amount to self-congratulatory messages about family, loyalty, and masculinity delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And Tariq, a manipulative college freshman with drug kingpin aspirations, is suited for being the lynchpin in this morass.
That might be just enough. Yet Rainey Jr. lacks the presence and charisma of Hardwick in carrying “Power” through six seasons. He’s therefore unconvincing as an alleged silver-tongued charmer capable of luring the unsuspecting into his narcissistic web of deceit, where just about every plan set in motion works in his favor, even when further complications result. Nor is he supported by actors powerful enough to make up for his shortcomings, further let down by a script that renders each performance a simplified imitation of better-developed, complicated characters from far more effective series.
As it is, “Power Book II: Ghost” belongs in the early 1990s. That’s when neo-blaxploitation movies like “New Jack City,” tackling similar themes, titillated a country itching for “real” representations of so-called urban life — no matter how insubstantial — amid what was referred to as a new “renaissance” for African American creativity in Hollywood. But its appeal in the present-day makes some sense against the backdrop of a media landscape where fast-food television rules, where everything old is new again, as audiences with even shorter attention spans sort through more choices than ever before.
If “Power” likened itself to a Shakespearean tragedy, “Book II” strays from whatever superficial inspirations its parent bragged about. It’s still heavy melodrama, and the stakes are the same: money, power, and respect. But it lacks the pathos evoked by Hardwick’s tormented Ghost. His was a throughline that gave “Power” a soul amid rampant displays of gratuitous sex and violence. “Book II” plucks from low-hanging fruit, appealing to its audience’s baser instincts, which isn’t a narrative sin; but the fast-paced, plot-driven spinoff lacks an emotional hook.
Now in its second season, “Power Book II: Ghost” airs Sunday nights on Starz, available simultaneously on the Starz streaming app.