How Courtney Kemp Made Power One Of The Best Shows On TV

An honest conversation with the journalist-turned-TV writer and producer.

Photographer Meron Menghistab
July 15, 2016
How Courtney Kemp Made <i>Power</i> One Of The Best Shows On TV

When the second season of Power aired last August, more than 4.4 million people tuned in to find out what twisted direction the crime drama would take. That number — double the viewership recorded for its debut the previous year — was a record for Starz, a cable network whose flagship original series is a historical time travel show set in the Scottish Highlands. Power, by impressive contrast, is a glamorous guns-and-gangs procedural set across New York City clubs, penthouses, and outer boroughs, played out through the web of its characters' messy relationships and ambitions.

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It was created by first-time showrunner Courtney Kemp, a former GQ writer who left journalism and transitioned into TV, eventually spending several years writing for the beloved CBS drama The Good Wife. Notably, the show is co-executive produced by 50 Cent, who stars across Omari Hardwick as a grimy antagonist. Season three of Power returns to Starz on July 17; ahead of its premiere, we talked to Kemp about empathy, race, and the American dream.



This is your third year with the characters of Power. How do you continue to treat them with empathy? How do you bring that consideration into the writers’ room?

It's interesting that you say the word “empathy.” I think what you're talking about is that you understand them. And you feel empathy towards them. But my experience as a writer is that the audience will follow a character anywhere if they understand their motivation. Even if they don't like what the character did, they understand why they're doing it.

A perfect example of this is the moment in the first season where Tommy lies to Tasha [to protect] Holly. Now, he's been in a close brother-sister relationship with Tasha for years. Between the two of them, Tasha's the person he should be loyal to — yet you understood why he did that. You completely understood why he lied for Holly in that moment. I think as long as I can tell you a story about people that you understand, it doesn't matter if you don't like what they do, you understand why they did it.

It’s definitely a show that makes you question your own assumptions about people.

Yeah, we try to challenge the audience. I think women judge other women more harshly, always, which is a shame. But we build a lot more “give” into things for men. Part of that is because we recognize their frailty. As women, we expect more out of each other because we expect each other to bare more pain.

In the past, you’ve talked a lot about centering the show on the relationships in it. The characters on Power have very specific jobs and come from specific places but, really, you can imagine their relationships in any industry or in any part of the world.

Yes, absolutely. I've really committed to telling some banal stories — like, really banal stuff and basic stuff. At one point, Ghost has a fight with Tommy about Holly in the first season, and it's like any two men having a conversation where they go, “I don't like your bitch. I don't like her. She's messed up!” The idea is that they have this fight that is normal between two men, but it's much more heightened because they're talking about the fact that she could be a threat to them.

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I think there's something that is really fun about our show and how the universal comes out of the fact that there are very basic situations that we go through in life. Many people have been cheated on, many people have been lied to. It's just that here what we're lying about and who we're cheating on is more specific.

How Courtney Kemp Made <i>Power</i> One Of The Best Shows On TV
“As a writer of fiction, you don’t ever want to limit the characters you create to the life you’ve lived.”

There’s this kind of frustrating sensibility that’s become standard nowadays that comes down to, “You can't write about this if it's not who you are or if that’s not where you come from.” How often do you find yourself up against that?

It's silly! I actually had an interviewer come up to me and be like, “I'm a black woman and I feel like only we should write about our issues.” And I was like, “Oh sweetheart, you don't want to do that to yourself.” I literally was like, “Honey, if you run around saying that, at some point there will be some issue that is mainstream and someone will tell you, ‘That is not allowed for you.’” Never ever has “colored only” worked for us. It's never worked for us one time. So when people do that, I’m like, “Really? That's what you want to do? You want to tell the world that you're limited?” Because that's what it’s saying, that I can only speak from my truth. As a writer of fiction, you don't ever want to limit the characters you create to the life you’ve lived. That's insanity to me.

Holly, for instance, is a real character. She is a white girl from Ohio who grew up in and out of foster care. That is not my story, and yet I understand who she is because there are parts of me that are damaged and lonely. There are parts of all of us — that's why we can relate to her. It's beyond silly to me. It makes laugh, like literally “Ha, ha, ha.” I don’t want to be seen in a way where all I can do is what people expect of me. You don't want to blow away expectations? You settle for anything? What you should do is ask questions, become a reporter. I was taught to report by one of my bosses at GQ when I worked there. I was taught how to be a reporter, it’s something that can be learned. So I’m like, “Report, dammit!” Go out there and ask someone who's not like you what it's like to not be like you.

I think that's what I meant by “empathy.” If you start from the point of treating everyone like they’re human, you can fit everything else in around that.

Yeah, we're chemical. What's happening on the outside of my body is genetics — an expression of the fact that my mother was very beige-colored, and my dad was sort of the color of a peanut, so you end up with me. My dad has a big round face [like mine] but if you see my mom, it’s all her features. But that's my outside. My inside is like everyone else. The same chemicals, the same blood, the same everything. So we feel all the same emotions. We can feel different things, but we’re all human. You can look at an image and feel something without words. I love photography, and I’m a visual storyteller. Whether it’s English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, it doesn't matter, because you can say a lot with an image.

Speaking of languages, how much do you consider a potential global audience for Power or for TV in general?

I consider it, but I write for America now. I think so much of the show is “the American dream.” The American dream is one of the things we export. We export it as much as we export McDonalds and rap. We own “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We own this idea of transformation. So many other cultures are about, “You're born what you're born as and that's what you stay as,” but that's not how we do things. And so because of that, I think the show has some universal stuff. People love that American dream story. People can buy into that. People can buy into the idea of starting out being broke, and then one day not being broke anymore.

As someone with a journalism background, I’ve been super-duper broke. I remember I was hustling, trying to write for VIBE, trying to get freelance pieces here and there and the other thing because I’m trying to make enough money to eat. I remember borrowing against my petty cash when I was an assistant, and trying to make that back up by the time I had to turn in the receipts. I grew up in a very healthy upper-middle class background, but I've had a job since I was 15. My parents always told me, “This is our money, not yours.” So when I was 16, my mom stopped buying my clothes. My mom was like, “Buy your own clothes.” So I had to learn to hustle, and that’s something universal.

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How Courtney Kemp Made <i>Power</i> One Of The Best Shows On TV
“We’ve benefited so much from exporting blackness because our currency as human beings actually matters, because we make and create culture, and culture can be monetized.”

I think there's a fascination with American blackness, which, for a lot of reasons but including the dominance of American media, has become the global construct of what it is to be black. It means that a show like yours can be successful anywhere, but it also means that the world thinks of blackness is just a singular thing or monolithic way of being.

Well, I don't know about that. We have benefited so much off of the back of Michael Jordan's head. We've benefited so much from exporting blackness because our currency as human beings actually matters, because we make and create culture, and culture can be monetized. We're cool, and we're sexy, and we're so beautiful. And we're threatening because we're so beautiful.There have been aspects to that kind of thing that are negative. But there are some that are positive, too.

My show is not on a traditionally black outlet. My show is on Starz. For me, the idea that I can mount this show in an unexpected place, and that the same amount of finance and the same amount of support can come to my show as does Outlander, that's the victory for me. That's my victory. That's where I can be of service. My show is not black-owned. It's black-run, because it's run by me. It's black-executive produced because it's EP'ed by me and 50 Cent, but there are also people who are non-black that are involved. But the network is not a black network and that to me has another capability. That doesn't delegitimize the shows that are on black networks, because that's important too. All of those spaces are important. All of them.

That's sort of the business side of things.

The reality is that people have to have access to the product. You can write a really beautiful novel and never get it published and people will never read it. It’s not just, “If the product is good, people will watch it.” It’s, “If the product is good and people know about it.” The business part, it’s not separate. That's something I've learned in this job — that creating and promoting and polishing and executing are not different. It's creating a product.

We used to joke when I was in broadcast that we weren’t selling TV shows, we were selling soap and tampons. You never forget that when you're on television you are selling. I am selling you a subscription to Starz. They greenlit this show not because they knew who was going to shoot who at the end of season two. What they did know was that there's a demographic that wasn't being served on their network, and they were like, “Let’s take a chance and see if that would do it.” So part of the reason I got my shot was business. A great idea doesn't always make a great TV show.

Nowadays a lot of TV is consumed in this binge-able format. How does that change how you make a show for cable?

Because I come from broadcast, the binge-model is really fascinating to me. In some ways it’s saying, “I'm not going to build in time for the audience to digest.” That's how I look at it, that there’s not time built in for anticipation. Anticipation is as long now as it takes for it page to load. I set out to make a show that will make you want to come back a week later. I have to do the muscle work so you would go, “It's Saturday at 9 p.m., and I want to watch this show.” But I do look forward to the part of my career where I create a show that I know would be offered in the binge-format .

We do something called an “oh shizzle” pass, which means I want someone to be watching my show, hit pause, and go, “Did you see that? Did they really just do that shit?” That's the most important part for me: that some will watch my show and go, “I cannot believe I just saw that.” I wanted this show to be undeniable like a bag of potato chips. You open the bag, and you smell the smell of the potato chip and you have that first potato chip and you don’t want to stop. And I’m proud that we’ve been able to do that.

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How Courtney Kemp Made Power One Of The Best Shows On TV