With a name like Star, Lee Daniels’s new soap, about a fledgling R&B girl group, was always going to live or die by the charisma of its unknown leads. There is a bona fide luminary in the cast: Queen Latifah, whose magnetism, musical talent, and comedic flair have been apparent since the late 1980s. Latifah signed her first record deal and released her debut single when she was 18, the same age as Jude Demorest’s Star, an orphan seeking fame with her little sister, Simone (Brittany O'Grady), and an Instagram acquaintance, Alex (Ryan Destiny), in tow. Based on the wan glow generated by the trio’s combined star power in the first three episodes, I wish Star a well-deserved rest in peace.
The musical melodrama arrives Wednesday, December 14, as Daniels’s other Fox series, Empire, continues its rapid descent out of the collective consciousness. It’s unlikely, though, that the outrageously dull Star will enjoy even a flash-in-the-pan moment. Like the Lyons’ ever-same saga, this hoard of clichés weaves lavish performances into the twist-packed narrative — though here, several are fantasy sequences, bookended by a cheap-looking special effect of a daydreamer’s face inexplicably cracked into shards. At least Empire could mount a weak but sincere defense of its social relevance through its explorations of black masculinity. Star’s depiction of the failures of the foster-care system and especially its cheap use of sexual assault in the overstuffed pilot belong in the Dumpster that contains Lifetime’s reject pile.
Looking like the fresh-faced Nickelodeon and Disney Channel alum that she is, Demorest is rarely believable as the kind of grit-in-her-veins badass who’d calmly stab her sister’s foster father as he rapes his 16-year-old charge. Later, she fails to sleep with Alex’s father, a has-been rock star (Lenny Kravitz, looking like he’s using up the show’s entire costume budget to play a parody of himself). Star apologizes to Alex — “I’m a thirsty whore” — and it’s then that Demorest reveals her secret weapon: She’s funny. In fact, the too-occasional humor is the only original element in the self-serious side plots about drug addiction, violent loan sharks, and the mysterious, decades-long feud between the girls’ new manager (Benjamin Bratt) and their new mother figure (Latifah).
The threesome are too hazily sketched for us to care about them as characters yet; they’re currently just sob stories with swishy hair. (What I wouldn’t give for a stage-clothes shopping montage to lighten the mood and allow Star & Co. to have some fun for once.) The show frames the girls as uneasily aligning in a kind of booty-shaking sisterhood, but I couldn’t help feeling demoralized by the contradiction of every modern girl group: Singing about women’s empowerment while thrusting their sequined ladybits for the male gaze and erasing their personalities with matching outfits. (The songs are pleasantly forgettable; the choreography is disappointingly lacking.) And since girl groups aren’t exactly in right now, I kept getting distracted by the question of why the hyper-ambitious Star or songwriting genius Alex would hitch their wagons to each other.
Daniels won himself no fans last week when he nonsensically explained that his new show “is told through a white girl’s perspective because I felt that the country instinctively, I thought, needed to heal.” The girl group is also made up of the biracial Simone and black prepster Alex, but it’s around Latifah’s Carlotta that Star feels most distinct. Formerly in her own girl group with Star and Simone’s mother, Carlotta is a woman flirty with her pastor (Tyrese Gibson), respected by her hair-salon employees, intolerant of her trans daughter’s (Amiyah Scott) identity, and concerned about the spiritual health of the three young girls who’ve run away from Pittsburgh and the Upper West Side to her corner of Atlanta. She’s easily the most interesting person in any room. But instead of Queen Latifah, we’re stuck with Joss Stone.