What does power really mean, anyway?
Amazon’s “The Power,” based on the 2016 novel by Naomi Alderman, imagines what would happen in our patriarchal society if women suddenly developed an electrifying superpower. In this series, they can shoot electricity out of their fingertips. They can shock a man who is trying to attack them, or a man who won’t give them what they want. They can win fights and throw rowdy drunks out of bars. They can make a man defecate in a pool. So with all this power at their literal fingertips, what changes? What doesn’t?
“Power” (streaming Fridays, ★★½ out of four) ambitiously asks a lot of big questions about gender and, well, power, but doesn’t provide many answers in its nine- episode first season (eight of which were made available for review). It takes Alderman’s philosophical, cerebral and disturbing book and smooths over a lot of its rougher edges to create a thriller with lots of sparks and rah-rahs for girl power. “Power” has the potential to be great, but it’s not electrifying yet.
The globe-spanning series follows men and women and explores how the new power – and the resulting chaos – affects their lives. Margot Cleary-Lopez (Toni Collette) is the mayor of Seattle who wins international notoriety after becoming the face of women bestowed with this power. Her daughter, Jos (Auli'i Cravalho), is a typical rebellious teen girl before she starts sparking, and Margot's husband, Rob (John Leguizamo), is dragged along for her political ride.
Tunde (Toheeb Jimoh) is a Nigerian journalist whose coverage of the electricity launches his career. Roxy (Ria Zmitrowicz) is the daughter of a crime boss who can finally act as muscle for her dad. Allie (Halle Bush) is a foster kid who uses her new gift to fight back against her abuser and then becomes a religious figure. And Tatiana (Zrinka Cvitesic) is the first lady of a fictionalized Eastern European dictatorship who's desperate to break free of her domineering husband.
There are a lot of stories and plots to keep straight, and the series struggles to balance them. Besides Collette’s Margot, the family consists of archetypes rather than people. The locations zip across the screen, and when one subplot starts to shine, the camera jerks across the world to someone new. The stories that require the most nuance, such as an intersex teen who develops the power, don't get enough screen time. And several changes from the book, most notably swapping the European country of Moldova for a fictional land of "Carpathia," diminishes some of the most pointed parts of Alderman's prose.
Turning a philosophical thought experiment into an action-adventure streaming series is a tall order, and much of the subtlety of Alderman’s storytelling is lost in translation. It's a lot of cheering for girl-bosses and less of the novel's central thesis that absolute power corrupts absolutely. The series significantly slows down the action of the book, because it's designed (in success) to last multiple seasons, so a closed-ended story becomes an open-ended one.
But Collette is a joy, and once her character is free of some clichés of mainstream feminism, she has a lot of fun as an irreverent politician. Jimoh, most famous for his delightful performance as Sam on "Ted Lasso," shows he has drama chops. And above all else, the series has a captivating aesthetic. The shots of electric power are often beautifully rendered, and thankfully avoid any resemblance to a cheesy video game trick.
It's possible the series eventually will rise to its lofty ambitions, with a good cast and solid source material. You can see flickers of it in scenes of Tatiana's bloody rebellion or Allie's fervent followers or Margot's violently expressed anger. It's the kind of energy that might just make a spark. If audiences are willing to wait for it.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'The Power' review: Shock, but not much awe, in Amazon thriller