On the one hand, it was easy to roll one’s eyes at news that FOX had greenlit “STAR,” a new musical drama from “Empire” creator Lee Daniels. On paper, the series seemed to be a shameless cash grab — a way to milk the network’s only scripted hit for all it was worth.
On the other hand, the premise of “STAR” provided reason for hope. In focusing on a group of young, aspiring musicians living in a modest circumstance, “STAR” had the opportunity to avoid the worst tendencies of the exaggerated, sensationalized “Empire.” Put another way, it had the potential to be a more mainstream, more focused version of Netflix’s “The Get Down.”
Notably, without pressure to adhere to the “Dynasty” template of wacky soap opera cliches, unrealistic plot developments and preposterous pacing, “STAR” could focus on more valuable ingredients: nuanced character development and cohesive storytelling. We could get to know the three central girls not as “devices” for plot shenanigans or meme generation but as real, relatable people facing challenges with legitimate meaning and consequence.
The timing is perfect for such a “get-right” approach to “Empire.” While the increasingly absurd “Empire” is quickly losing steam, NBC’s character-driven “This Is Us” is quickly exploding.
Based on the first three episodes, “STAR” does not seize the opportunity. It makes the same mistakes as its predecessor.
It burns through plot at the same ridiculous pace. It introduces the same types of plot contrivances and conveniences. It writes characters with the same preference for stereotype over substance. It ends scenes and switches focus with the same degree of abruptness and disinterest in resolution. It features the same breed of over-the-top “soap opera drama.”
Worse, “STAR” lacks the qualities that served as saving graces for “Empire” (at least during its first two seasons – it has been pretty terrible this year).
It lacks the freshness: “Empire” was unlike anything else on the air when it debuted; “STAR” is very much like “Empire.”
It lacks Taraji P. Henson and Terrence Howard: Not simply talented actors, Henson and Howard are remarkably adept at navigating the show’s over-the-top tone without losing credibility. No one on “STAR” would be able to pull off ludicrous lines like “If you want Cookie’s nookie, then ditch the bitch” or “Even God can’t kill me.”
It lacks Jussie Smollett and Trai Byers: They may not be on the same level as Henson and Howard, but Smollett, Byers and several of the other supporting players act with a remarkable degree of emotional intensity. The infectious energy helps turn creative lemons into lemonade. It makes viewers at least occasionally care about the characters even though they are largely written without consistency, depth or nuance.
“STAR” lacks the technical qualities expected of a great television show. It, moreover, lacks the “pop” that helped “Empire” succeed despite lacking those technical qualities.
It, quite simply, is a disappointment.
It does, however, have some strengths. It also has some weaknesses unrelated to the “Empire” comparison. Accordingly, we decided to take a deep dive into all elements of FOX’s new “STAR.”
The Premise: Star (Jude Demorest) has ambitions of stardom and the talent to match. She, unfortunately, is held prisoner by circumstance. Living in a rural foster home with an unloving family, she has no clear shot at a career in music.
Following one last emotionally demeaning encounter with her foster family, she opts to break free of her shackles. She ditches the house and heads to Social Services, where she gains information about the whereabouts of her half-sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady). In a dramatic moment (one that is sure to have long-term consequences), Star helps Simone escape from an even more tangibly abusive — downright horrifying, in fact — foster situation, and the two sisters head for Atlanta to live with their godmother Carlotta (Queen Latifah) and take advantage of the city’s hot music scene. While en route, Star invites her Instagram friend — singer-songwriter Alexandra (Ryan Destiny) — to come down from New York and join them in a girl group.
Due to omissions on Alexandra’s Instagram profile, Star only knows her as a young, talented artist. In actuality, Alexandra is the daughter of rock legend Roland Crane (Lenny Kravitz). Alexandra is looking to make her own name and explore her art; leaving the comfort of her lavish home to join Star and Simone in a girl group allows her to do both.
The girls quickly get to know Carlotta, who was in a girl group with Star and Simone’s late mother called Mixed Harmony (“Mixed Harmony,” get it?). We ultimately learn that Carlotta wanted to assume custody of the girls following their mother’s death but was deemed unfit. She seems to be doing better now; she is a beloved member of the community and church and runs a hair salon featuring a diverse group of employees.
Clearly disillusioned with the industry, Carlotta is not especially enthusiastic about the girls’ interest in a music career. Her bigger priority is providing them with a more stable home. More damaged by her time in foster care, Simone is more inclined than Star to embrace the simplistic comfort of the new life. Star, however, remains vigorously determined to become a star — and she works to keep Simone motivated.
Star’s ambition eventually leads her to Jahil (Benjamin Bratt), a down-on-his-luck talent manager with taste and connections but demons, a proclivity for drug use and money issues (think: Kevin Corrigan’s character in “The Get Down”). He also has a contentious history with Carlotta.
Still, Jahil and the trio begin working together, and their partnership yields some early wins.
Across the first three episodes, we also get to know several other characters. We meet Cotton, Carlotta’s trans daughter whose gender identity remains an issue for her mother. We meet Hunter Morgan (Chad Buchanan), a pro football player with deep pockets, ties to Jahil and a romantic interest in Star. We meet Derek (Quincy Brown), a community activist who quickly becomes a love interest for Alexandra. We meet Rose (Naomi Campbell), Alexandra’s addict mother whose marriage to Roland is utterly loveless. We meet Pastor Bobby Harris (Tyrese Gibson), a church leader who offers support to Carlotta and the girls.
In addition to the girls, their emotions and their ambitions in music, “STAR” focuses on the dramatic, non-musical facet of Jahil’s life. It is also developing a storyline related to Simone’s escape from her foster family. Separate storylines involving Carlotta will also presumably emerge in the episodes ahead.
The Cast: “STAR” is a tale of newcomers pursuing stardom, and it fittingly cast relative unknowns as Star, Alexandra and Simone.
With unique, striking looks and definite vocal talent, Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O’Grady would actually be decent candidates for a girl group. They do not, however, come off as obvious TV stars.
They are not entirely to blame for that reality.
Demorest has a “presence” and undeniable charisma, but her character is not well-suited for connecting with viewers.
“STAR” admirably avoided the cliche of portraying the protagonist as an innocent, victimized, “good girl.” The problem is that it went a bit too far in the other direction. We know, factually, that Star had a very tough childhood. And we know, courtesy a comment from Alexandra, that Star’s pain comes through in her voice. But we don’t really see any weakness or vulnerability. We are never given reason to perceive Star’s unwavering strength as a front, making empathy impossible. It makes a “connection” impossible.
We, as an example, see Star use her sexuality to get ahead on multiple occasions in the first three episodes, and she never shows a hint of hesitation, regret or discomfort. That’s not inherently problematic; it is not our place to judge Star for using her own body. But if Star does not feel victimized (she, in fact, jokingly takes pride in being a “whore” at one point), viewers cannot feel for her. And that is the problem, because we’re inclined to root for those with whom we empathize.
Ryan Destiny’s issue is less with the Alexandra character and more with the way stories are written for the Alexandra character. Everything involving Alexandra — from her romantic relationship with Derek to her confrontation with her parents — happens way too quickly and superficially, giving her no chance to actually explore nuanced emotions. For all we know, Ryan Destiny is a great actress. She has absolutely no opportunity to prove it in these three episodes.
O’Grady’s performance is the most overtly weak of the three, unfortunate given that she has the most “meaty” role in the initial episodes. Tone is the problem for O’Grady, who seems too grim when attempting to be sarcastic or witty but too “funny” when attempting to be deep and emotional. Simone is the closest thing to a complex character at this point, and O’Grady is not quite up to the task.
Not simply a haven for newcomers, the “STAR” cast also features recognizable veterans.
Queen Latifah has the most commanding presence, but her performance is thoroughly unspectacular. There is little “edge” or “zip” inherent to the character, and Queen Latifah’s performance lacks the energy to transcend the limitations of the writing. She is solid and believable, but she is not particularly memorable.
Benjamin Bratt arguably gives the strongest performance inasmuch as he comes closest to the “hammy, yet credible” tone befitting a show like this. He seems to best understand the character he is playing and the show he is on. But while he is probably the MVP of this particular cast, his performance is hardly noteworthy in the overall television landscape.
Guest star Lenny Kravitz is forgettable as Roland (the same can be said for Tyrese’s guest work as the pastor), and Naomi Campbell (who appears in the second episode) is a disaster as Rose. She forgoes authenticity in the name of going over-the-top, but her performance is not fun, exciting or delightful enough to make the trade-off worthwhile. Her acting doesn’t come across as “soapy” — it simply comes across as “bad.”
The Music: “Empire” falls victim to what I call the “Adrian Grenier Dilemma.”
“Entourage” had the burden of convincing us that Vinny Chase was this undeniable, once-in-a-lifetime movie star even though actor Adrian Grenier (who obviously has the same look and talent) was not a big-time superstar in real life.
“Empire” has to convince us that its original songs are smashes (and that its cast members are among the most successful musicians in the world) even though the music rarely makes any impact on the iTunes and radio charts.
By focusing on up-and-coming musicians, “STAR” avoids that issue. Its songs do not have to be smashes. They do not even have to be great. They simply have to be good enough to show the potential of the three leads. The music on “STAR” generally meets that modest standard.
“STAR” instead subjects itself to a different burden. By presenting Alexandra as a talented songwriter hoping to make meaningful music, “STAR” creates an expectation that the songs will feature great lyrics. They do not.
Granted, they probably shouldn’t. The main characters are in a pop/R&B girl group; they’re obviously not going to make heavy, spiritual music. But the absurdity of Alexandra criticizing her father for selling out, saying she needs to make music that feeds her soul, and then “writing” these songs is undeniable.
The Musical Performances: “STAR” borrows two of the worst tendencies from FOX’s “Glee.”
Instead of showcasing organic performances, “STAR” will often break into fantasy, music-video-like sequences. The tactic would be fine if used in select cases to develop characters or make spiritual points (such as the opening number in episode three), but “STAR” is way too liberal with this “music video” approach. Worse, there are some cases (such as a party scene in the premiere) in which we’re apparently supposed to take what we see literally.
Music video or not, the performances also seem disconnected from the actual narrative. They lack context.
The group’s first performance is a spur-of-the-moment gig at a local dive bar, yet the choreography and production are all essentially perfect. One of the characters gets drunk literally moments before a later performance, but the drinking has absolutely no impact on the number. A performance in the third episode takes place in an unconventional location with makeshift equipment, but the production makes it sound as if it is being recorded in a high-end studio.
The super-glossy, over-produced performances are frustrating on shows like “Glee” and “Empire,” but they are particularly problematic on “STAR.” This show is supposed to be about an up-and-coming group trying to perfect its craft. There should be a learning curve. There should be bum notes, missed dance steps and downright bad performances.
Social Issues: “STAR,” like “Empire,” is an unabashed primetime soap.
That does not mean it cannot address modern social issues. The initial storyline involving Jamal’s homosexuality, after all, played a big part in putting “Empire” on the map.
Through Cotton, “STAR” explores societal perception of transgender persons. Notably, it reveals that even someone as seemingly warm and welcoming as Carlotta can be ignorant to — if not downright dismissive of — her own daughter’s sense of gender identity.
It’s a compelling topic and a way to give “STAR” some gravitas, but the handling is somewhat clumsy. Carlotta’s issue with Cotton seems like it only manifests when “STAR” wants to take a break from its other storylines. Queen Latifah, moreover, does not exactly “sell” Carlotta’s “intolerance.” I believed Lucious was disgusted with Jamal’s sexuality; I don’t believe Carlotta really disapproves of Cotton’s gender identity.
Storytelling: The show’s narrative is undermined by several key flaws.
There are no major consequences. “STAR,” much like “Empire,” wants every moment to be dramatic and action-packed. Unfortunately, “STAR” also shares “Empire”‘s refusal to change the status quo. The two perspectives do not blend. The show eliminates all stakes if every major developments, from rifts between bandmembers, to drug overdoses, to fights between lovers, are cleanly resolved by the next episode (if not by the next scene).
Of course the group isn’t going to break up at this point. Of course one of the leads isn’t going to die at this point. So why introduce storylines related to those implausible outcomes in the first three episodes?
Everything is too convenient. Yes, it’s a TV show. Things are obviously going to work out more smoothly than they do in real life. But the degree of convenience on “STAR” is almost comical. Early in the premiere, Star happens to arrive at Simone’s foster home exactly when an act of horror is taking place. Later, Star happens to encounter a manager who just so happens to be the man who managed Carlotta and Star’s mother and who just so happens to know of an upcoming gig.
Alexandra’s parents happen to show up exactly when she’s letting loose and dancing on the floor of the hair salon. Later, Rose happens to encounter Roland exactly when he’s doing something sleazy.
The show often rushes (and even bypasses) key moments. This criticism rings particularly true in the case of Alexandra. She makes a big decision at the end of episode two, but we don’t actually get to see the presumably interesting, emotional conversation and contemplation that led her to that decision.
Her relationship with Derek develops in cartoonish fashion. The scene cuts just as a mild flirtation is beginning. Next thing we know, they’re an item sharing intimate feelings with each other. In episode two, their relationship heats up, cools down, and heats up again at a unjustifiably preposterous pace.
Carlotta’s vehement opposition to letting Jahil manage the girls quickly fades — with little explanation.
But is it worth watching?: The core narrative — three young women hoping to achieve fame — is universally appealing. Those who like following dream chasers and those who like musicals will surely find some entertainment value in “STAR.”
The problem is “STAR” does nothing to build on that framework. The storytelling and characters are not compelling enough for those interested in a “good” TV show. And the acting is not exciting or energetic enough for those interested in a “fun” TV show.
“STAR” operates in a bland middle-ground, opting neither for the depth befitting its premise nor the flash befitting its predecessor. “STAR” is not a complete waste of time, but in today’s golden age of television, it should not be anyone’s priority.
Premiering after Wednesday’s “Empire” fall finale, “STAR” is in position to attract at least a solid sampling. The true test will come this January, when “STAR” is asked to draw that audience on its own.
FOX’s STAR premieres at 9PM ET/PT on December 14.