Somewhere in the tuneless strains of Star, a more soulful show tries to sing itself free. The newest showbiz musical from Tom Donaghy and Empire co-creator Lee Daniels tells the story of a scrappy orphan burdened with a loaded name, Star (Jude Demorest), all in a rush to become — wait for it — a star, by any skeevy cliché necessary. She’ll beg for it. Sleaze for it. Even do worse, spoilery things for it. She chases this ambition with her equally down-and-out, used-and-abused sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), and her Instagram BFF Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), the daughter of a burned-out rocker and vapid model (Lenny Kravitz and Naomi Campbell; so meta!). But shh, don’t tell! She keeps that a very contrived secret.
Together in Atlanta, these Cinderellas seek to become pop princesses and reconnect with family. Queen Latifah, an appealing, grounding force, plays Star’s and Simone’s godmother, Carlotta, a devout Christian who has known fame and fallen from it. Her beauty salon is a haven for women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks — a provocative, lovely premise. It’s here on Carlotta’s island of misfit hairdressers that Star shows promise. It’s melodrama that interrogates fraught identity politics and covetous dreams in a culture obsessed with celebrity and the self, framed by a perspective that prizes diversity and spirituality. Think of it as a post-Glee show for a post-American Idol world. It’s the anti-Fame.
Star’s authenticity, worldly aspirations, and #SquadGoals are presented as Things to Be Deconstructed. Carlotta’s crew doubles as a judgy Greek chorus, casting shade on everything from Star’s light skin to the quality of her soul. Singing, it seems, ain’t about art; it’s about class ascension, self-actualization, and — for now — sisterhood. Star tells a perfect stranger: “The next time you see this face, it’s going to be on the cover of Vanity Fair.” Does she see Simone and Alexandra in that picture too? Maybe. Our wanna-Bey believes in group formation, but she’s gotta be front and center. The show seems to think that what this Waterfalls-chasing trio really needs more than CrazySexyCool transfiguration is some TLC. Simone’s early arc, a tale of a profoundly deprived and desperate person in crisis, puts a fine, blunt point on it. She’s got a God-shaped hole in her heart, and there may be nothing in this world that can fill that.
Unfortunately, Star subverts everything with hollow heaviness and familiar cynicism. The second you get the kids-for-cash Exploitative Foster Mom, you know Rapey Foster Dad can’t be far behind. Portraying the fame game as degrading self-prostitution is as haggard as Benjamin Bratt’s manager trope — the drug-addicted borderline pimp looking for a career rebound. The musical sequences are shockingly uninspired, and the Empire-minted mix of grit, sensationalistic soap, and sly, unsparing satire fails to gel and rarely entertains. It works against the characters, actually. The show has some grace for its flawed dreamers, but the drama clunks. Star’s sexual manipulations grow ridiculous, Simone’s spiral is forced, and everything Alexandra just doesn’t work. There are clever ironies at play — casting newcomers (all capable, none of them great) as fame-chasing ingenues, for example — but the storytelling has poor command of them. Latifah’s character and performance is a rock; the show should build on it. But I worry Star is the worst kind of hot mess — a cold, dead one. C-
Star debuts Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.