There was a lot riding on Empire when it premiered in 2015. Not only was Lee Daniels’ first foray into musical drama an aspirant to the primetime soap throne, but it featured a predominantly black cast, which is still an exception in the TV landscape. Even though the series stars two Oscar nominees—Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson—no one could have guessed what a roaring success it would become upon arrival. (Given how much it touted Empire, Fox must have had some idea, though.) There’s been a noticeable decline in quality since, but the premiere (and a dozen episodes here and there) remains a shining example of not just black-centric stories, but small-screen introductions in general.
Unfortunately, Daniels hasn’t parlayed the success and lessons of Empire into another standout show about the inner workings of the music industry. His new series Star is a second-rate second act for Daniels, who created the show along with Tom Donaghy. The girl-group drama has a special premiere tonight on the heels of Empire’s fall finale, and while it may benefit from the lead in, it will suffer from the juxtaposition. Even latter-day Lyon family squabbles appear polished and engaging compared to any of Star’s first three episodes.
This first chunk of the first season is rife with choppy editing, clunky dialogue, and themes that aren’t introduced so much as theatrically trotted out—with musical accompaniment. The pilot is the worst offender, and while that could be chalked up to being, well, a pilot, those kinks aren’t really ironed out in later entries. It’s a very tentative introduction, made all the more surprising by the fact that Daniels wrote and directed it from his own treatment. It doesn’t foster much confidence, let alone interest, in a series when even its creator is unsure of how to flesh out that world.
Star is more muted in palette and, occasionally, tone than Empire; that newly mandated restraint could be what’s causing Daniels to second-guess himself. Here he’s envisioned a group of women, including two sisters, on the verge of fame and destruction instead of reaping the rewards of their combined talents. Jude Demorest plays Star Davis, a teenager who’s been in and out of foster care since her mother overdosed in Atlanta. She’s shown to be fiercely loyal, going to extraordinary lengths to retrieve her younger sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) from an awful foster home. With a closet now full of skeletons, they head south with Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), the third member of their as-yet-unnamed group.
The only thing they have in common with this rich girl and music scion is music, so they don’t gel right away. By throwing in an addictive personality and PTSD, Daniels ensures that this group will experience all manner of growing pains and moral quandaries. But he’s not just setting up these scenarios for camp or melodrama. Daniels is aiming for the kind of socially relevant entertainment Norman Lear is famous for. But he also wants to explore the oft-fraught dynamics within girl groups, most famously depicted in Dreamgirls.
As honorable as these intentions might be, Daniels isn’t able to reconcile them with his impulses. The flashy daydream sequences, which are deployed at least a couple of times per episode, would look out of place against the somber hair salon setting even if they were executed well. The balance between the musical numbers—and they are very much staged that way, instead of just music-infused moments—and the rest of the scenes needs some adjusting, too. The show’s attempts to work in the homespun wisdom of flawed guardian Carlotta (Queen Latifah) are also hamfisted, though Latifah is the only assured presence on screen, other than Benjamin Bratt as a washed-up manager.
Fox reportedly held nationwide auditions to land these three leads, and while their lack of experience is nothing to hold against them, it shows in their performances. Demorest is uneven, while O’Grady focuses on playing overwrought. Destiny has the most star quality, with the look and cool confidence of a young Lauryn Hill. Unfortunately, it’s hard to gauge the trio’s respective singing abilities, since the songs have all been overproduced to the point that their voices are indistinguishable from each other. Even the music in Star is lackluster.
Daniels probably wasn’t shooting for Empire comparisons with Star, but they’re impossible to skirt, especially when the shows are in the same genre, under the same banner. Where Empire has gloss, Star has grit. The Lyons are established; the Davises, untested. But, rather than offsetting Empire’s excesses—of which Daniels seems downright apologetic here—Star just has its hand out, awaiting some kind of direction.