Thursday, December 15, 2016

Pilot Review: Star

Star (Wednesdays at 9:00 on Fox, Beginning January 4)

ABC has Shonda Rhimes. NBC has Dick Wolf. CBS has Chuck Lorre. The CW has Greg Berlanti. Now Fox has Lee Daniels, the latest talent to be tapped for branding on the network following the monster success of Empire. Unfortunately for Fox, the Daniels brand is already starting to sour; Star isn't nearly as successful in this subsequent attempt to capture the passion, energy, and lightning that made Empire must see TV in its first season.

The problems with Star begin almost immediately. Daniels' clunky dialogue (co-written by co-creator Tom Donaghy, whose last creator credit was on ABC's short-lived The Whole Truth) and bland set-up introduce us to the world of Star (Jude Demorest), a 17 year-old foster kid in Pittsburgh with dreams of making it big as lead singer of a girl group. Her friend Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), whom Star has never actually met since they first connected on Instagram, is a talented songwriter and the group's second member. All that's missing is Star's younger sister Simone (Brittany O'Grady), who is in another foster home since their mother died over a decade ago. Under pressure from Alexandra to meet up and take the group seriously, Star gets herself written out of the system. Her social worker gives her a file with information on Simone's placement, as well as a stack of letters from her godmother Carlotta (Oscar nominee Queen Latifah), a hairdresser in Atlanta who always recognized the girls' talent for music. After saving Simone from a sexually abusive foster father, Star and her sister meet Alexandra, who is running away from her emotionally distant, famous father (Lenny Kravitz), and get to work on making their dreams come true.

It's a very standard rags-to-riches story, and even the added bit of the girls forming a singing group isn't terribly unique. The format follows very closely Dreamgirls, Sparkle, and the Mariah Carey abomination Glitter, among many others. There's nothing fresh about a girl group's rise to the top, despite Daniels' best efforts to infuse some grit into the plot by making Star and Simone victims of the foster system (there are obvious shades of his directorial breakthrough Precious at work here); by displaying issues faced by trans women; and by having each character touched in some way by poverty and/or addiction. It's kind of the anti-Empire, following poor characters trying to make a name for themselves rather than rich characters trying to stay on top of the world. But Star lacks the self-awareness and camp qualities that made Empire's early episodes worth watching, which were mostly thanks to the scenery chewing performances of Terrence Howard and, more so, Taraji P. Henson. The latter elevated even the worst dialogue to unreal heights with her over-the-top, delicious line delivery. Newcomer Jude Demorest just doesn't have that same ability; she's just fine, but she's definitely not ready to carry the show on her slight shoulders.

So the heavy lifting is left to everyone else. Queen Latifah has the natural charisma to make her character, a worship leader and salon owner, work better than Star does. But there's only so much that a performer can do when they're given weak material to work with. The script is a mess, full of awful dialogue and absurd situations. Before the first commercial break even happens, Star has walked in on her sister being raped by her foster dad, so she stabs him repeatedly before they leave and barely even think about it again. It's a development that I actually watched in confusion, wondering if it would turn out to be some kind of elaborate fantasy sequence, but no... teenager Star commits murder (as far as she knows, though we later learn he survived) and then packs her sister into the car to go record a demo in another state. Later in the episode, Star poses as a stripper to get a meeting with an agent (Benjamin Bratt), which gets her group booked at a party for a football star, whom she promptly seduces with talk of "big balls." And yes, she's still legally a child while all of this is happening (but I guess it's okay, because an expository line early on tells us Star "has no regard for rules"). It's no wonder that Demorest doesn't have the ability to shoulder such a series: she's given crap to work with. Lines like "I need to make music that feeds my soul" and "The next time you see this face it's gonna be on the cover of Vanity Fair" pop up throughout the pilot, making it clear that even though Demorest and the other new girls aren't the strongest actors, the blame doesn't land squarely on them.

But what about the music? A lot can be forgiven in terms of soap opera plot elements, weak performances, and eye-rolling writing if the music is worth showing up for. To some extent, it is. Of the three songs in the pilot, none were memorable enough that I can recall the hooks (unlike, say, "Let Me Be Your Star" from Smash or "Good Enough" from Empire), but they're not terrible, either. The girls' voices work well together, and the songs have a nice Little Mix feel to them, so if you just want some vaguely forgettable pop music sung in between ridiculously melodramatic scenes, Star might be worth adding to the DVR queue. But there's little else to latch onto by pilot's end. There's not even a cliffhanger moment meant to bring you back for more, like Lucious killing Bunkie. (I'm sorry to keep comparing Star with Empire, but considering all the connections, it's kind of impossible not to.) It's actually fairly obvious where future episodes will lead, so what's the point?

Personally, I'd blame the mediocrity of Star on Daniels' co-creator, Tom Donaghy. Daniels has proved that he can do great things when he chooses talented collaborators, like Danny Strong and Geoffrey S. Fletcher, but Donaghy just isn't the same kind of creative force. I don't know if he needs someone to reign him in or to lift him up, but either way, he didn't get it for Star, and the show suffers as a result.

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