If you know Lee Daniels' work and singular eye as seen in Empire and his films such as Monster's Ball and Precious, then you know two things: he has a flair for the unapologetically dramatic, and music is his muse. His new show, Star, combines both signature Lee elements to create a show that's a gritty, over-the-top exploration of how a girl group comes to be.
But despite recognizable flourishes, Star is nothing at all like Empire. Whereas Empire lets viewers live inside a blinged-out hip-hop mogul fantasy, Star starts at the bottom, with its lead character clawing her way out of the gutter to stand in the spotlight. Whereas Empire has the gloss and sheen of a big-budget music video, Star wears a filter that makes it look like a low-budget documentary. Watching Empire means daydreaming about being a Lyon; watching Star means wondering how many more licks its heroine (also named Star) will endure or dish out before she gets the big break she's pining for. Here's more about the Fox drama that's premiering this week.
It's a patchwork of influences and ideas
Daniels has said in interviews that Star is a hodgepodge of things that inspired him, including Dreamgirls, Valley of the Dolls and Sex and the City. Star is also a commentary on race in America: the lead character Star (Jude Demorest) is an archetypical "down" white girl, who's comfortable navigating through black culture thanks in part to having a half-black sister. Daniels has alluded to Star having a bit of Paris Is Burning — the still-resonant 1991 documentary on voguing culture — in here too. All that, and original musical numbers!
It's a rags-to-riches story
Star, when we meet her, is seeking, well, stardom, but can only make it big by escaping her thoroughly depressing foster family situation. After her emancipation, she rescues her aforementioned sister Simone (Brittany O'Grady), scoops up a recording artist named Alexandra (Ryan Destiny) who she met online and hightails it to Atlanta to make music and find her godmother Carlotta (Queen Latifah). There, the girls do what it takes to make their aspirations come to fruition: sweep and shampoo hair at Carlotta's shop, shimmy at a strip club and then become enmeshed with a slightly shady talent agent named Jahil, played by Benjamin Bratt. Of course, the path to fame isn't rosy: Carlotta steps in to keep Jahil away from the girls, and Star will have to soon reconcile with a shocking crime she commits in order to reunite with her sister.
It has a motley cast of newcomers and A-listers
Lead Jude Demorest, a native of Detroit, reportedly auditioned at least three times before Daniels cast her (and told her to her face he didn't like her, to throw her off guard. Fun!). Like Demorest, her on-screen cohorts Ryan Destiny and Brittany O'Grady are newcomers too, which helps enhance the raw feeling of the pilot. Also new is Amiyah Scott, the model-turned-actor (who won the role after a much-touted search for a trans performer) whose character assists the girls; though she and TV personality/singer Miss Lawrence (previously seen on shows including Real Housewives of Atlanta and Fashion Queens) aren't major characters, they come to steal a significant share of the shine due to their funny, biting banter. Of course, you've heard of Bratt, restrained but convincing as a slimy manager, as well as Queen Latifah, who becomes the glue that holds the show together as its moral center and chief vocalist. Lee Daniels' buddies Lenny Kravitz, playing the rock-star father of Alexandra, and Naomi Campbell (her mother) are on board as well. Behind the camera, talent includes co-creator, co-writer and executive producer Tom Donaghy, who worked on Without a Trace, The Mentalist and his show The Whole Truth; there's also executive producer Charles Murray, who exec produced Luke Cage, and executive producer Effie T. Brown, the filmmaker who made headlines for taking Matt Damon to task over diversity on Project Greenlight.
So what's it like?
In a word, confusing. There are times that Star feels like an intentionally demented B-movie that's as funny as it is violent as it is heartwarming while being sexy and a little sermonizing too. Melodrama can venture into unintended humor, with some story lines and dialogue requiring complete suspension of disbelief. (Why, you might find yourself asking, would rich privileged Alexandra — whose father is a musician — hop in a car with strangers she met online to go to Atlanta and sleep on a dingy floor... to make music?) That said, Star's kooky world can become mesmerizing, not least because of the frequently intoxicating musical numbers. If nothing else, watching Queen Latifah belt out numbers — and do some hilariously fascinating wig play — is a delight.
Will it work?
Star runs in the 9 p.m. timeslot Empire leaves open until it returns in spring, so Star is positioned for success. There's an obvious overlap in audience, even though it's markedly different from Empire, but Queen Latifah's gospel-infused character and a forthcoming cameo from soul legend Gladys Knight indicate a strategic play for African-American women who've made Insecure and Queen Sugar become hits this year. Daniels has already acknowledged having to "shift course" with Star's direction after Trump's win, a sign the show is, like its characters, working to solidify its voice. That's not necessarily a bad thing though. Empire began as a sort of "bucket list" experiment for Daniels, he's said, and, Empire's sometimes rocky road notwithstanding, it's still one of broadcast TV's best performers this season. Star very well could prove to be another case of "if you build it they'll come," and you can smooth out the wrinkles later.
Star airs its first episode Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 9/8c with following episodes airing Jan. 4 and Jan. 12. at 9/8c.