Meet Star Davis and her girl group, trying to take the Atlanta music scene by storm
RECAP: 12/14/16 All Crops: STAR: Pictured L-R: Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O'Grady in the special premiere of STAR airing Wednesday, Dec. 14
Credit: Annette Brown/FOX
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You might think Fox is trying to re-bottle Empire’s lightning with Star — and let’s face it, with original music, soap-worthy drama, and even the same name as a popular tabloid, you’re probably right. But over-the-top antics and great singing voices make for great TV, even if it might not win any Emmys — and we’ll never say no to Queen Latifah. So, let’s settle in for our first recap of the gritty, outrageous new show.

We open with a quick voiceover from Queen Latifah about the show’s namesake, Star Davis (Jude Demorest): “Ever since Star was little, she believed her name was who she was,” she says. “But I told her fame was a trip — it ain’t love like a lot of people think. But she wouldn’t listen. Star don’t listen to nobody but herself.” Got it.

Star is a Tori Kelly lookalike with a penchant for oversized hoop earrings. She’s trapped in foster care in Pittsburgh, doomed to wash dishes for her cruel captors like she’s Cinderella of the Trailer Park (“She ain’t worth the money we’re gettin’ for her,” one says). There’s some hope, though: She’s got a friend/fairy godmother in rich Manhattan teen Alexandra Crane (Ryan Destiny), who writes songs perfectly suited for Star’s voice — but they can’t really accomplish anything until Star gets to New York. And before that, Star must turn 18 and get her sister out of a different foster home, she tells Alexandra. But a few minutes later, she changes course: She’s had enough of her foster mother and she’s headed to Social Services now.

Alexandra, on the other hand, seems to have it all — except she doesn’t. She does not get along with her jerk of a father, singer Roland Crane (an ageless Lenny Kravitz), who isn’t about to open Alexandra’s trust fund for “some white-trash human on the Internet.” He swears Star is only using her to get to him, but Alexandra says her Instagram account is under a fake name, so that can’t be possible. Oh, also, Alexandra needs to make music that “feeds my soul” — Roland used to make that kind of music, but now he’s just coasting on crappy songs.

Speaking of crappy parents… Apparently, Star’s mother ended up on the streets, but Star swears to the Social Services woman she won’t be like her mother (though her budding criminal record says otherwise). After a tearful plea about not seeing her sister in five years, Star convinces the woman to process her out of the system. (That was easy?) Star gets her file, and inside she finds a stack of letters from a woman named Carlotta Brown (Latifah) who has been trying to find Star and Simone since their mother died years ago. “Those girls sing like angels,” she writes. “They need to be safe with each other under the same roof.” And their voices remind Carlotta of their mother’s. I don’t know if angelic voices are the reason they need to be safe, but… Yeah.

At first, Simone’s (Brittany O’Grady) foster situation seems like a rare great one: There’s a mother, father, and even a little sister. But the illusion quickly evaporates when the mom takes the kid to school and Simone is left alone with the man — who makes her wash the dishes before he rapes her. But as he’s distracted, Star arrives at the house, sees what’s going on, runs down to the kitchen to get a knife, and proceeds to stab him multiple times in the back. UM — WOW. A rape and a murder in the first 10 minutes? Star is not going to be a subtle show.

In the car they steal from Simone’s foster father, the sisters catch up (“You still sing?” “Yeah, I still sing. You still sing?”) and Simone puffs on a joint. They’re driving to Atlanta because the music scene is lit and they’re looking for Miss Carlotta. Star calls Alexandra (while exchanging license plates with another vehicle), and before we know it, they’re at her ritzy building (complete with doorman) in New York. “You’re shorter than I thought,” Star says to her Insta pal. “And you’re heavier than I thought,” Alexandra answers. The start of a beautiful friendship!

NEXT: Tension in the salon

The bonding continues at their motel. Star asks Alexandra why never mentions her parents — she says her mom is dead and her dad’s a surgeon. They catch up Simone on the music they’ve been making, and it turns out she can rap and sing. After Alexandra goes to bed, though — and Star tells Simone “I killed that man for us. Now we can focus on our dream.” — Simone reminds Star that, ahem, stardom is her dream, not Simone’s. Oh, and she won’t take off the tank top with drops of her rapist’s blood on it: “I like it because he’s dead and I’m free,” she says.

The next day, they finally arrive in Atlanta and Star shows up at Carlotta’s hair salon. The girl at the front desk — Carlotta’s daughter — gives her attitude (“You find us on Groupon or something?”) until Star produces the letters and a queen in the shop says, “Oh, you’re one of Mary’s girls.” Did they know Star and Simone as babies, or has Carlotta just talked about them enough? “She’s been looking for you and your sister a long time — also, you need your roots done,” the shop girl says.

“It’s nice to meet you, too,” Star replies, then turns back to Carlotta’s daughter: “Is she like that every day?” “Girl, yeah. She can’t help it — she ugly,” she responds. Bonding already! I have a feeling Carlotta’s salon is going to produce the show’s best lines.

Later, the girls find Carlotta singing in church (Queen Latifah’s voice never gets old) and we see flashbacks of her hugging young Star and Simone as their mother gets put into an ambulance on a stretcher. In the present, she recognizes them right away. Star and Simone lie and say they got lucky with great foster care — maybe to keep Carlotta off the trail of the murder? But she says they can stay with her now, so long as they help at the salon. She and Alexandra butt heads over the church (Alexandra’s an atheist; Carlotta says, “You’re gonna burn”), and we meet another of the show’s beautiful faces: An activist named Derek (Quincy Brown). We also learn Carlotta was in a singing group with their mother.

The next morning, they rehearse in PJs and underwear for the gigs they don’t have. “I’m standing in the middle, I sing lead,” Star says. Alexandra isn’t having it: “I wrote this song to showcase all our voices,” she says. But the tension dissolves into giggles after Simone makes a joke.

A week later, they’re back working in the salon. Star has trouble shampooing someone’s hair and goes off on a couple members of the staff (and clientele!) after they make fun of her for being white and not knowing how to shampoo. “Why is it that you think you know anything about me? Who raised me? Who was good to me, black or white? You’re a racist,” she says. Interesting point — I wonder what more we’ll learn about Star’s upbringing, or lack thereof. Meanwhile, all Simone seems to care about is asking Miss Carlotta what their mother was like, and if she’s anything like her.

Alexandra gets them a gig at a local bar’s open mic, where the emcee announces them like so: “As their initials spell, ASS.” The song, “Break Your Chest,” is great, but this might not exactly be the crowd for it. When they leave, Star tells them about her own plan: “I know where to find a manager at this time of night in Atlanta. He’s throwing dollar bills at some girl’s ass.” Then, out of the shadows comes Carlotta’s daughter, Cotton (Amiyah Scott). “I’m confused about where you just came from,” Star says (I laughed out loud). She agrees, they’re at the strip club where she dances — and she can get them in.

“I will go-go, but I don’t show my cash and prizes,” Star says. Alexandra doesn’t think they should have to, but Simone has a different point: “Look at Kim Kardashian. I love her, and she showed every hole in her body, and now she’s famous.” I guess that’s one way to put it…

NEXT: The trio’s first performance

Star decides she’ll do it for the three of them and Alexandra heads back to Carlotta’s. “What do I do that seems to get under your skin?” she asks Carlotta. Carlotta wants the best for them, which apparently doesn’t mean the music. But Alexandra tells Carlotta she read the letters she sent and knows she was unfit to take care of the girls. So, what is Carlotta’s backstory here? Carlotta isn’t having it, though: “You’re running from something.” Alexandra stomps out, but finds an unexpected treat outside — “Change the World” Derek lives next door, and they bond over wanting to make peoples’ lives better using activism (Derek) or music (Alexandra). He tells her to “Get over here” so he can make her feel better. “No, you get over here,” she says.

Meanwhile, at the strip club, Cotton gets Star a dance with Jahil Rivera (Benjamin Bratt). He resists at first, but Star is persistent (“You don’t want Michelle, she’s got syphilis,” she says dismissively). She brings him to the champagne room, where she dances and then she — or they both? — end up in a Chicago-like fantasy dance scene where Star performs a song called “I Bring Me” for the whole club, with the rest of the dancers as backup. They come back to reality and Jahil instantly offers her a gig at NFL player Hunter Morgan’s house party. “You sing there like you did just now, I’m gonna have to take you on,” he says. She tells him she’s a package deal, part of a girl group, and he gives her his card.

She goes outside to find Cotton getting beat up by a man, and when Star asks what’s going on, he says the “freak” needs to tell people “what’s down there.” Cotton replies he knew what was down there — turns out she’s a trans woman! Wonder how that’s received in her religious household.

We find out quickly. Back at the salon, Carlotta sees Cotton’s black eye and says she hopes Cotton wasn’t where she thinks they were. Cotton says they were at the club, and Carlotta says, “Quit lyin’, boy.” “Girl, Mama,” she replies. An argument breaks out but Carlotta squashes it: “Look, you wanna be a woman, all right. I got no problem with it. But I know what goes down in that club.”

As the girls rehearse for their gig, Star and Alexandra butt heads over song choice and Simone starts talking about singing for Jesus and getting saved — she’s been talking to Miss Carlotta. Star tells Simone there’s something wrong with her (a little harsh, since you know she was getting regularly raped, but okay?). Basically, Simone is dying for a new mother — she’s younger than Star, after all. And Star is too jaded to think a new mother would be any sort of solution. “The only person who’s gonna save us is that manager,” she says.

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Then, a twist: Turns out Carlotta and Jahil know each other — and she goes to see him. “That’s Mary’s kid, Star,” she tells him. “The minute I heard that girl sing, it made me feel exactly how I felt when I first heard Mary,” he says. Carlotta tells him she knows his music gig is just smoke and mirrors. There’s some other reason he can afford $10,000 watches and she’s going to find out. “I killed myself to make you and Mary stars, and you blew it,” he says, getting angry. “Mary with the drugs, you gaining weight and never showing up on time.” He thinks they derailed his career. But Carlotta’s tough: She pulls out her gun and tells him to stay away from those girls.

He’s clearly not going to listen. The girls get ready for their gig in new outfits made by Cotton. “That drag queen can sew her ass off,” Alexandra says. Simone corrects her immediately, “She’s not a drag queen, stupid. She’s trans.” A few minutes later, Simone gets pissed when Star and Alexandra tell her not to get drunk or high for the performance — she’s angry with Star again for thinking she’s her boss and for dragging her around Atlanta. Of course, nothing really comes of it. They go to the mansion, where Star immediately hooks up with Hunter Morgan while Simone starts pounding scotch and gets wasted. Neither act seems to affect the performance at all, which goes off without a hitch (except that some of the vocal-distortion effects on the song don’t really make sense for a live performance… But okay).

In a brief final scene, we leave Atlanta and head back to Harrisburg. Simone’s foster father is in a hospital bed, very much alive, and a police officer asks him if there’s anyone who would want to hurt him. Will he confess Simone might have a grudge against him? I don’t think he saw Star, since she stabbed him in the back… But with that big, curly, blonde hair, she’s definitely got distinct features if he does remember anything.

So, little stars… Thoughts on the pilot?

Episode grade: C

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