“Star” has a number of things common with “Empire.” Both music-industry dramas have Lee Daniels as a co-creator, and feature a mixture of well-known performers and newcomers in soapy sagas of ambition, greed, and struggle. The songs in both programs are usually at least competent, if not catchy — but the similarities end there.
When it’s firing on all cylinders, “Empire” is a diverting, glossy romp that balances the conventions of TV melodrama with zesty lines, juicy twists, and issues of social and cultural relevance. And even when it meanders or devolves into an incoherent mess, it has the galvanizing performance of Taraji P. Henson as Cookie Lyon, whose entrance into a room can perk up even the most sluggish scene. Henson’s relentlessly creative approach to playing her character, and her ability to hold the screen as a charismatic, designer-clad diva gives “Empire” a reliable center — and that’s what “Star” lacks.
A “star” isn’t just what the core trio of characters are striving to be; it’s also the name of the lead character, a headstrong hellion who escapes from her awful foster family and heads off to rescue her sister from a similarly wretched home life. Star (Jude Demorest) and her sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), travel to Atlanta, where they meet up with the third member of their aspiring girl group, the spoiled Alexandra (Ryan Destiny). Hair salon owner Carlotta Brown (Queen Latifah), who had known Star and Simone’s late mother, takes the three girls under her wing, but they quickly prove to be too much for her to handle.
Demorest can sing, but like most of the younger cast members, she is an unpolished actor and frequently gives a shrill and one-dimensional performance. The most convincing actor in this messy and ungainly show is Benjamin Bratt, who injects his character — the group’s manager, Jahil Rivera — with subtle layers of desperation and frustration. Working with the trio offers his last chance at the big time, and he knows it.
Both Henson and Bratt offer convincing evidence that it’s possible to give a grounded, nuanced performances in otherwise supercharged and sometimes outlandish soap operas, but “Star” does its cast no favors. There’s not much depth or discipline in this sloppy story, so less talented cast members either flounder or oversell the material they’ve been given, and some characters veer toward cartoonish stereotypes. The show also is saddled with a derivative murder mystery straight out of an uninspired procedural.
The show’s dialogue is clunky (“Everyone wants to be a star, Star”), its storytelling is predictable, and when it comes to pacing, the drama is all over the place. Occasionally when characters begin singing, the show segues into the kind of glossy music-video fantasy sequence that “Glee” used to drop into its episodes. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with a show venturing into surreal or hyper-real territory; used well, that kind of colorful foray can add texture and dimension to the characters’ hopes and ambitions. But each person on “Star” is so flatly delineated and depicted that there’s not much for those flashy moments to illuminate.
At least the music videos have the kind of energy and momentum the rest of “Star” lacks, but its attempts to examine faith, mental illness, human trafficking and other issues come off as rote and occasionally tone-deaf. Aesthetically, “Star” attempts to capture a grittier vibe than “Empire,” but the documentary-style scenes don’t mesh with the swoopy camera work of the music videos or the stilted staging of many conversations.
“Star” tends to screech to a halt whenever it shows Carlotta talking to her pastor, and the editing of the show frequently feels off-kilter. Scenes end at strange or unsatisfying moments, and characters fall in and out of bed together, launching into ferocious arguments with very little build-up or resolution. But few things on television are more wooden and painful than the scenes featuring Naomi Campbell as Alexandra’s imperious mother. It was one thing when the former supermodel turned up on “Empire” to deliver a catty line or two, but in “Star,” she has several highly dramatic scenes to play. Unfortunately, the scenes involving Lenny Kravitz (who plays Alexandra’s rock-star dad) and the unconvincing Campbell are generally cringe-inducing, as is a deeply weird and misconceived strip club scene in episode two which features Bratt.
Showbiz melodramas about ruthless strivers have a storied pedigree in TV and film; they can offer thrilling and harrowing looks at what it takes to make it to the big time. But “Star” trudges through the basic requirements of the form without much insight, joy, polish, or coherence. For a show about music, it just hits too many wrong notes.