THE SERIES “Star”
WHEN|WHERE Previews Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox/5; officially premieres on Jan. 4 at 9 p.m.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT In and out of foster-care homes, Star Davis (Jude Demorest) wants to reunite with her long-lost sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) to launch a girl band with someone she met on Instagram, Alexandra (Ryan Destiny). Star — who’s white, Simone’s black — has a powerful voice and quite a stage presence. Stardom should be easy (right?) But what Alexandra’s not telling her new bandmates is that her father, Roland Crane (Lenny Kravitz), is a major music star who could give the new group a huge lift, if he were of a mind to — which he’s not.
The three go to Atlanta, where they meet up with Carlotta (Queen Latifah), who was the other half of an R&B act and whose former partner, now dead, was Star and Simone’s mother. Carlotta, who runs a hair salon, was their guardian but gave them up for adoption (for reasons unknown). She embraces the three, who don’t exactly return the favor. For career advice, they turn to her old manager, Jahil Rivera (Benjamin Bratt). “Empire’s” Lee Daniels created this 13-parter.
MY SAY By this point, you’ve maybe guessed that “Star” is a prime-time soap. What’s harder to figure out — possibly because “Star” hasn’t — is what kind of soap. Woven through the first three episodes are stories about human trafficking, sexual abuse, a drug overdose (or possible suicide attempt). As seen here, or as judged here, the Atlanta music scene is a cesspool run by has-beens or never-beens. Everyone or most everyone in “Star” is falling and can’t get up, or won’t get up.
FX’s “Atlanta” actually covers some of the same terrain, and comes to similar conclusions. At least “Atlanta” is grimly funny, or grimly ironic. “Star” is just grim.
For an aspirational, star-is-born, up-with-life prime-time musical entertainment — imagine “Glee,” with a hip-hop beat — that’s an impossible tone to maintain over the long haul. Except “Star” is not remotely any of that. It’s all about the grit, or the dirt. Demorest’s Star arrives here fully-formed, — an embittered, hardened fame-aholic who knows that the price of getting ahead involves a lap-dance or two. Bratt’s Rivera is the quintessential music manager from hell, now in a hell of his own making. He’s just one line of coke away from finding the Next Big Thing. As a salon owner on weekdays, Latifah’s Carlotta Brown sings to Jesus on Sundays, but more as penance than out of any sort of religious conviction.
So now you know what kind of soap: A not particularly fun one. With “Empire,” Daniels exploited some gaping holes in prime time, most notably a prime time long without “Dynasty.” In a sense, “Star” is the “Empire” companion series, but not remotely a “Dynasty” one. It wants none of that escapist froth. Instead, this is almost a version of the Lucious Lyon origin story, with Star as a young Lucious or — better yet — Cookie. If they ever met, they’d probably like each other — if they didn’t kill each other first. They may get that chance to meet if a crossover episode ever happens.
Like “Empire,” music is important here. The songs are all originals, with veteran TV composer James S. Levine (“Glee”) as musical overseer. But as one character scoffs when he learns of their act, “A girl group? What is this? 1985?” He’s not entirely wrong either. The band is Salt ‘N Pepa from the early years, or maybe a harder, raunchier version of Destiny’s Child. Songs arrive out of nowhere, either as dream sequences, or fully staged performances with a high-gloss ready-for-YouTube quality. But “Star” isn’t “Empire,” or “Dynasty” or “Making the Band” either. The band’s already made. Instead, this is about discovering the band. The first three episodes suggest that process will be long, hard, and — for some viewers anyway — joyless.
BOTTOM LINE A prime-time soap that wants to be harder-edged than “Empire,” but instead manages to be less fun.