The title character of Star, the new Fox musical drama from Empire co-creator Lee Daniels and playwright Tom Donaghy, is thirsty. Played by newcomer Jude Demorest, Star is an aspiring singer with the confidence — and the hair — of a veteran arena-touring deity. In the first episode, airing on Fox tonight, Star escapes from the clutches of the foster-care system when she turns 18 and, along with her sister and another singer she meets online, heads off into the wonderful world of the entertainment industry. Buying a bus ticket out of town, she tells the clerk, “Next time you see this face, it’s gonna be on the cover of Vanity Fair.”
That Star’s 18th birthday is the catalyst for the events of the show is convenient. Star has such an infinite hard-on for its protagonist, it might as well be called Barely Legal. Viewers may be tempted to cheer the show’s vision of three young, independent women trying to make a go of it on their terms. But it’s telling just how many times we’re asked to suspend our disbelief in order for their story to make sense. And if you think the producers aren’t going to treat us to scenes of these three hot young things getting ready in the bathroom in their underwear, you must be new to TV.
When we first meet Star, she’s chatting with her New York-based collaborator, Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), a fellow singer whom she met on Instagram, from the derelict courtyard of a housing complex in Pittsburgh, sporting basketball-hoop-sized earrings like she knows she belongs somewhere with better lighting. With her glamorously disheveled mop of dyed-blonde hair and her airbrush-smooth makeup, she already looks like the “after” picture.
Within ten minutes, Star has officially aged out of the foster care system and tracked down her 16-year-old sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), who’s been living with a foster family in Harrisburg. Arriving at the house, Star witnesses her sister’s foster dad sexually assaulting her and comes to her rescue before stealing his car and whisking her off to New York to pick up Alexandra — whose father, Roland (Lenny Kravitz) is a famous musician himself, although Alexandra has yet to tell Star. From there, the trio heads to Atlanta, where they take shelter with Star and Simone’s godmother, Carlotta, played by the heavenly Queen Latifah.
By the midway point of the show’s pilot, the trio are performing in front of their first audience; by the end, one character’s committed attempted murder, another has threatened someone with a gun, and Star gets her first big break. Star is in such a rush to get to the next musical “dream sequence” or teenage overdose, it brushes past developments that would have provided enough drama on their own merit. What is it like for an 18-year-old with no money or connections to age out of foster care? According to Star, it’s as easy as stealing a car and hauling ass to Georgia.
Occasionally, you can see flashes of an interesting show beneath Star’s gold-lamé overwrap. The Atlanta backdrop is a nice change from New York or L.A. Carlotta has a transgender daughter, Cotton (played by the transgender model Amiyah Scott) whom she still calls “boy” and who helps guide the girls through the seedier side of Atlanta’s music scene. Queen Latifah brings a low-key authenticity to her role as the beleaguered mother figure with a checkered past.
Although most of the musical numbers, like those in Empire, are unmemorable and overproduced, at least one musical fantasy scene, in the second episode, made me smile. It’s nice to see a mixed-race group at the center of the show — Simone herself is also mixed-race; her father is black — and race is something all three girls are keenly aware of. When Star makes a joke about Alexandra’s hair, she responds, “This is real. Not all black girls wear weaves.”
But, of course, the white girl is the star, and the characterization of Star as a fiercely independent, tough-as-nails go-getter might be more powerful if her cleavage weren’t the focal point of every frame she’s in. In the pilot, after watching the trio perform at a local talent contest, Cotton brings Star to a strip club and points out talent manager Jahil (Benjamin Bratt) — whom Star promptly invites back to the champagne room, her voice providing the accompaniment to a steamy lap dance.
The 24-year-old Demorest is a commanding presence onscreen, and she has no trouble selling Star’s talent and ambition. But in its eagerness to depict its young protagonist as an independent woman with agency, the show falls back on tired, gendered stereotypes — the tough cookie who knows how to use her body to get what she wants; the sexed-up glamazon who has no shame. The teenager who spent the past two years shuttling between six different foster homes is harder to glimpse.
The show can’t seem to separate Star’s professional ambitions from her image as a seductress, as if the former were driven by pure sexual energy. When Alexandra calls Star out on her insatiable thirst for male attention, she shrugs it off: “I was doing what I know how to do.” Star, you may just make it in this business after all.
Star premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox.