For a show riddled with showbiz clichés, Star’s mere existence is actually the biggest: the copycat.
After a network or studio manages to capture lightning in a bottle, as Fox did in 2014 with Empire, suddenly every programming executive in Hollywood fancies themselves Benjamin Franklin, running up and down Santa Monica Boulevard carrying water bottles in a thunderstorm, ready to capture that magic for themselves.
Fox went straight to the Zeus of Empire himself for Star, hoping that Lee Daniels, who serves as co-creator of both series, would have another lightning bolt in his pouch to send their way.
And while what he and partner Tom Donaghy (The Whole Truth) craft with Star is more of a light rain than the perfect storm of Empire, there’s enough weather brewing in the first episodes made available for critics to make adding the show to the DVR worthwhile.
If you’re a fan of Lee Daniels, you know that he goes big, he embraces messy, and he has no shame inviting you over to spend time with him in his big, messy world. In the case of the Empire/Precious/The Butler/The Paperboy mastermind, being a fan can mean being an admiring critic as often as it means being a devout follower.
Pick through that mess, and even the biggest Daniels skeptic will find a fierce commitment to progressive social issues; a knack for writing showcases for actresses of color that are so often slighted by Hollywood; and a kind of Shakespeare-meets-camp delight for dialogue that is as operatic as it is silly—though only effective about as often as you’d expect with that kind of ambition.
But ambition is the key when it comes to Lee Daniels, and Star has that in spades.
In the opening moments of Wednesday night’s preview premiere (the rest of the season will air regularly starting Jan. 4), we’re introduced to newcomer Jude Demorest’s Star, a talented girl whose name is either destiny or a liability or a curse. At the very least, it’s the first of Daniels’s heavy-handed tropes.
“Ever since Star was little she believed her name was who she was,” Queen Latifah’s Carlotta narrates. “But I told her: Fame is a trip. It ain’t love like a lot of people think. But she wouldn’t listen. Star don’t listen to nobody but herself.”
Star is a piece of work. But that tough-as-nails personality is earned. She was raised in foster care after her mother died of an overdose, finally finding hope after she connects over Instagram—the show, if nothing else, embraces its 2016-ness—with Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), the rich daughter of a musician, and the two lay out plans to form a girl group.
Ready to make good on her name, she flees her foster home to find her estranged sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), whose foster situation is even bleaker than her own: Her foster father (played by Darius McRary) rapes her.
They find sanctuary with their godmother, Latifah’s Carlotta. Alexandra joins them, desperate to break free from her oppressive life of privilege—don’t worry, the show’s characters roll their eyes at her for you—and rehearse with the girls to earn their way to success. Destiny’s Grandchild, if you will.
We’re only about through the second commercial break here, but the plots and twists that have happened already, which we won’t spoil, have all the trappings of Daniels’s signature big swings. But unlike the broadly-drawn world of Empire, with a heightened reality that accommodates its crazy-sexy-cool soapiness, Star’s grittier, softer aesthetic doesn’t support such creative slugging.
It’s Latifah who brings a sense of grounded gravitas needed to temper the wildness of the plotting. It’s a controlled, transfixing energy that the show seems to lack the courage to harness itself around, instead spinning off in flashy, distracting directions.
Her Carlotta is a mother figure of sorts not just to her godchildren. She’s a presence in her church, and owner of a salon that serves as a haven for the girls, women of color, and LGBTQ folks—including her daughter Cotton, born Arnold (played by transgender model-actress Amiyah Scott)—who need her determined strength.
It’s here where Star shows its true value. For all its ramshackle ridiculousness, it spotlights social issues and struggles, from race to agency to identity, that resemble our own world more than we’re used to seeing on TV.
Lee Daniels, who co-wrote and directed Wednesday’s pilot, is notorious for his everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to storytelling. And at times in Star’s first run of episodes, it almost feels as if he threw that damn sink in there, too, just for good measure.
But while the issues he tackles here might even seem laughably exhaustive—rape, human trafficking, addiction, sexual power, feminism, trans identity, reverse racism, and, sure, showbiz!—there’s a certain dignity that is at the very least attempted in the handling each one of that will forever make Daniels one of the most important television storytellers we have. (If not always the most restrained.)
There’s so much going on here that we nearly forgot to talk about the music—something that’s certainly indicative of the series’ flaws—but it’s actually quite good. Star, Alexandra, and Simone perform original songs that, following in Empire’s footsteps, do actually sound radio-ready, and certainly lodge themselves in your head.
They’re like Destiny’s Child, should the group have come up at the same time that Rihanna’s edge was influencing pop music. Kind of like Fifth Harmony, without the farce of not a single member having a discernible personality.
In charting their journey, Daniels leaves no showbiz cliché unexplored.
There’s the shady fallen manager banking on the girls for his return to glory, played by Benjamin Bratt. In a plot taken directly from Sparkle, Carlotta is a weathered singer herself, who wants to keep the girls from pursuing a career in the industry that burned and broke her. And one girl—would you believe her name is Star?—is the clear standout, laying the groundwork for all kinds of Dreamgirls, Beyoncé-going-solo story possibilities.
There’s a palpable energy to the music performances that is missing from the rest of the series, and, as is evident to anyone who’s watched Empire, an ear for humor and campiness that Daniels has always excelled at. (Star, the show that will always be remembered for Naomi Campbell telling a white girl: “You have bad roots, you insolent hussy.”)
But brace yourself for tonal whiplash when these elements pivot jarringly from the show’s melodrama.
Take the show’s third episode, which features a fun, sexy psychiatric ward-themed music video dream sequence. The girls dance around in leather thigh-highs and and hospital gowns, open in the back for their cute undies to peekaboo through. It’s incredibly tone-deaf, considering that the number follows 40 minutes or so of television that attempts very admirably to treat mental illness with serious nuance. “And now: a slutty dance number!”
There’s no shortage of high stakes to distract you in Star, with a life hanging in the balance at the end of nearly every episode. But does the musical soap opera hit the high notes? The vocals are too artificially sweetened, when what the show really needs is more emotional truth.