It’s impossible to consider a new TV series from Lee Daniels about a band attempting to make a quick ascension to fame and fortune without thinking of Empire. Perhaps this is unfair but it remains an unavoidable truth. Daniels received plenty of attention by directing Precious and The Butler (The Paperboy, less so) but it’s his Shakesperean look at a pop-music dynasty that remains his most well-known and audacious work. Though the show never quite lived up to the otherworldly thrill of the first season, its reputation remains largely untarnished.
So, one would naturally think that if Daniels was returning to similar subject matter, as he does in his new series Star with co-creator Tom Donaghy of The Mentalist, there would be a unique reason for the return. And yet, while watching the first few episodes of Fox’s primetime soap opera, there was no rush of urgency to the exchanges or the action, no sense of sizable personal stakes or a feeling of inner reflection. The story of the eponymous would-be girl-group lead, played by Jude Demorest, is meant to be about the moral, fiscal, and personal choices made in the name of making it big. There’s plenty of talk about the bad decisions and sacrifices made by should-have-beens like Star’s Christ-praising godmother (Queen Latifah) and her washed-up father-figure-cum-managerial-type (Benjamin Bratt), but it remains all talk. Despite a handful of flashbacks that feel purely ornamental in their exposition, there’s no sense of the hurt that has defined Star’s life or her sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), another member of the girl group.
This being a Lee Daniels joint, nothing remains sober and focused for long, so anyone who expects even the faintest glimmer of experiential feeling in Star should look elsewhere. Instead, Daniels opts for a familiar brand of tawdry, pulp-novel melodrama, beginning with Simone’s molesting foster father to a fatal stabbing to the attempted seducing of a rich musician for some cred. That last part, in particular, introduced an element of class warfare in the personage of Ryan Destiny‘s Alexandra, a privileged teen and talented musician trying to make her own name with Star and Simone without the help of her famous daddy, played by Lenny Kravitz. Any talk about the strain put on artists in their family life, or the inner workings of a teenager attempting to find one’s distinct persona in the shadow of an icon, is jettisoned for nonsense about sex, pills, and industry lingo that feels about on par with someone who reads a few paragraphs of Spin in their therapist’s waiting room.
There’s something to be said about outlandishly embellishing the time-tested, big-ticket headlines about low-income families and poverty-stricken individuals, focusing on drug addiction and infidelity blocking out stories of restraint, courage, and genuine good. If Daniels had put more emphasis on the polish of his artifice and gave the show’s aesthetic the same bombast that it’s tawdry, openly cheesy dialogue gives the story, Star might have proven to be a subversive, infuriated series. It’s overall look, however, is more chintzy than anything else, wrecked with soft focus and lazy, unconvincing you-are-there camerawork. Unlike with The Butler and The Paperboy, Daniels is not reaching for anything beyond a marginally well-acted soap opera with Star and in this incredibly modest effort, he has succeeded. Whether or not that’s worth celebrating is a horse of a different color.
★★ Fair — Cue Shruggy Emoji Guy ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Star premieres Wednesday, January 4th on Fox.