Can anyone remember the names of the ex-members of the former girl group, Destiny’s Child? For even the above-average fan, the answer is no. And it’s because of our mind’s quick and natural ability to erase the past so easily once perfection sets in that we have remain hopeful for Lee Daniels’ newest series, “Star.” Better shows have overcome their pilots before, but right now, it seems borderline unwatchable. It will take both time and a lot of shake-ups to block this premiere from our memory, but it is possible: There is huge potential for this show to be great.
Similar to the trial and error Destiny’s Child went through before finding its winning trio of Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle, if “Star” narrows its focus to only featuring its best parts, it can succeed. And one day we can look back on this pilot and think “Whoh! Is that even from the same series?”
Partnering with Tony Donaghy, this is the creative baby of Lee Daniels, who brought us films like “Precious: Based on the novel Push by Sapphire,” and “The Butler.” He’s also responsible, of course, for the hip-hop music-biz juggernaut “Empire,” which aired its Season 3 fall finale right before the premiere. All of that means it’s too early yet to immediately remove this show from the DVR and call it a night, but we understand the urge.
Playing the titular role of “Star” is newcomer Jude Demorest. Spunky with an impressive voice, she is distractingly way too old to be believably playing 17. However, the girl group she forms with her half-sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) and the secretly rich girl from a music dynasty, Alexandra (Ryan Destiny!), is not bad. But the obviously lip-synched pop tracks they perform, in oversexualized music video montages fit neither into the realistic performance realm of “Empire,” nor the fever dreams of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” Overall, the singing and dancing falls short of anything we’ve seen from Tiana (Serayah McNeill) on “Empire,” or your average Fifth Harmony clip.
The girls have talent — but in a conceivably well-intentioned narrative motif, Star uses sexuality several times in the premiere alone to further the group’s career. A perceived 17-year-old confidently and willingly going there — and get such approval from much older men in power, like down-on-his luck agent Jahil (Benjamin Bratt) — fails to come off in the way we believe Daniels intended.
If the rest of the script weren’t so far-fetched, these scenes would give viewers that heartbreaking, “Is this really how the music business hustle is on the streets type?” reaction. Much of “Empire’s” impressive madness feels believable in that context. But after seeing Star stab Simone’s rapey foster parent with a kitchen knife like something out of “Scream Queens,” then puts her career in the hands of a girl she met via Instagram, it’s hard to feel anything real at all.
Together the troubled trio travel to Atlanta to meet Carlotta, a woman who used to be best friends with Star and Simone’s mother, and opens up her barbershop/house for them to live. Ridiculous plot lines aside, the show’s true star here is Queen Latifah. She is a gift. The best moment of the entire premiere is when Latifah sings in church, her soulful pipes reverberating within your soul.
If the show could keep the random music video montages of the budding girl group to a minimum, pump up the rest with more of Latifah’s performances, that would be great. Music sung with Latifah’s power is rare — with so much TV out there, it’s something worth tuning in for.
Queen Latifah needs to be the Jamal (Jussie Smollett) of ‘Star.” She needs a featured song to belt each week.
More singing also means less talking, which would be good — although luckily for “Star,” Latifah could read a food delivery menu and somehow make it captivating entertainment. But not everyone has Latifah’s chops, and there are struggles to give believable life to a lot of the lines. Because of this — as with “Empire,” during its hazier periods — many of the show’s humorous moments are sadly unintentional.
Back to focusing on the good: Lenny Kravitz plays Alexandra’s father, and in episode two, Naomi Campbell will play her mother. It’s also been announced Terrence Howard will make an appearance. And while we want to be excited that this could be a future “Star”/”Empire” crossover episode, it’s presumably going to be weirdly distracting, given that Naomi Campbell’s character died on “Empire” last season. And for those holding on to the hope that Mimi didn’t actually die, showrunner Ilene Chaiken told the THR, “We can assume she’s dead. She drank the poison.”
Daniels wants this to be show to examine race issues, and what’s happening on the streets, from a fresh perspective. His goal of challenging the status quo — somehow — by making the lead a white woman is… interesting… but there’s just too much happening in this rags to riches story for any of it to resonate.
As of its debut, “Star” is a hot mess. But if the series can wrangle a few major changes, this could be a modern retelling of “Dreamgirls” — and Daniels will add another huge hit to his already impressive resume.
“Star” premieres on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on FOX.