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Lee Daniels’s ‘Star’ Aims for ‘Empire’ — and Falls Short

For the empire builder, that’s a problem

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Back in 2015 — remember 2015? — it seemed like Lee Daniels had found a new formula for broadcast success. He didn’t play Mad Libs with the same tired template. He didn’t try to beat prestige at its own game. Instead, he went big and fun the way only a deep-pocketed network can, and hit on a blueprint in the process: drama + scale + representation + star power = profit. It made throwing white bread (and sometimes actual characters, in a trademark show of subtlety) in the trash look like good business sense.

On the eve of Daniels’s latest enterprise, though, the elements of that equation have started to shift. The Lee Daniels Empire is showing some stress.

For a while, the Fox series’ atrophy wasn’t cause for concern: A third-season show was bound to start fraying around the edges. And besides, Empire’s worst is beyond other shows’ wildest dreams. Even when ratings tumbled nearly 40 percent throughout Season 2 (from more than 17 million viewers for the Season 1 finale to a hair under 11 million) and the third-season premiere failed to rally, the show was still handily winning its Wednesday-night time slot. Now, though, Empire routinely scores series lows, even losing its vaunted status as the no. 1 scripted show on broadcast.

And now we have Star, a show that’s living proof there was a not-so-secret ingredient to Empire’s success. It just wasn’t Daniels. Star is essentially Empire minus that ingredient. Premiering Wednesday night on Fox, it’s another music industry drama, swapping out the three Lyon sons for the three members of a fledgling girl group, and Chicago-masquerading-as-New-York for Atlanta. It immediately unleashes the histrionics that made Empire so eminently tweetable, taking less than 10 minutes to combine sexual abuse and attempted murder in a single scene. Something feels off, though — something that sounds a lot like Taraji P. Henson’s heels when she struts into a boardroom.

Cocreated by Daniels and playwright Tom Donaghy, Star’s intended place in the Lee Daniels narrative is obvious. A proven hitmaker, Daniels topped even the Oscar-nominated Precious and wildly popular The Butler (sorry, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) with Empire. After years of forcing soap operatics into the highbrow through sheer force of will — the one-two punch of Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron in The Paperboy and the fried-chicken scene in Precious will forever define his aesthetic — Daniels finally gave in and made an actual soap opera. That show proved eight-digit audiences and steadily climbing numbers weren’t things of the past; they just took some extra shock and awe, in the form of a Timbaland-produced soundtrack, a Naomi Campbell guest run, and enough animal prints to give PETA a stroke. Daniels has basically bottled lightning — and Star is his chance to start selling it. It’s also his first tentative step toward building an, uh, empire to rival those of Greg Berlanti and Shonda Rhimes, or even network-mates Phil Lord and Chris Miller.

Unfortunately, Star is launching just as Daniels’s would-be flagship is starting to lose steam. Empire’s hysterical pace and prodigious output were never going to age well. But not all of the show’s decline, both creative and quantitative, can be chalked up to staleness. Like so many soaps before it, Empire has devolved into incoherence, an unraveling made all the more inevitable by a refusal on the part of Daniels, cocreator Danny Strong, and showrunner Ilene Chaiken to give the Lyon family real and lasting differences. Instead, the clan cycles through endless alliances that last all of five seconds before the family unites in the face of a common enemy, an exhausting and head-spinning pattern only Henson has the prowess to make convincing. The longer Empire spins its wheels, the more the fun gives way to exasperation.

Star doesn’t have Henson to buy it time. It’s missing its own version of Empire’s beating heart, the part that’s continued to garner plaudits and awards nominations even as the rest of the show has fallen off. That’s to say: Star doesn’t have a Cookie, or an actress to imbue her character with as much irrepressible fire as Henson gives hers. It’s obviously too early to predict the show’s ratings; it’s not impossible that a premiere date in the mid-December dead zone could benefit from a lack of competition, streaming-services-style. But it’s also hard to imagine Star coming anywhere close to Empire’s breakout. That’s because it’s inherited many of its predecessor’s problems and few of its strengths.

The girl group at the center of Star is led by a character literally named Star (Jude Demorest), a wink that worked for the free-spirited rambunctiousness of American Honey and flops hard here. This is the character Daniels made a white woman because “the country needed to heal,” a bizarre about-face from the man behind one of the diversity-in-TV push’s greatest triumphs. “I think that this white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her, and white people will embrace her,” Daniels continued, apparently forgetting he’s widely credited with executing the reverse.

Star is a rough-and-tumble foster kid from Pittsburgh with a positively Brooklyn-esque accent and a well-developed Instagram presence, which is how she meets Alexandra (Ryan Destiny), the incognito child of a music superstar played by none other than Lenny Kravitz. Convinced they’re destined to make it big, Star stages an impromptu rescue of her biracial half-sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady), which led to the aforementioned abuse-murder scene, and they’re off to Atlanta before the blood dries on anyone’s shirt. Empire had the deliciously Shakespearean framing of Lucious’s King Lear–style competition to carry it through the first season, plus the thrilling subversion of applying that framing to a hip-hop dynasty. Star has a conflict as hastily assembled as it is prosaic: Some girls wanna get famous. The grandeur is gone, and so is half the fun.

Star also runs headfirst into the Genius Paradox faster than any show in recent memory: We’re supposed to believe these women are undiscovered superstars, but Demorest, Destiny, and O’Grady, all newcomers, aren’t especially convincing as singers on the cusp of their big break. We’re not invested in their success, and Daniels doesn’t invite us to be particularly invested in their journey, either. The characterization is hasty, sloppy, and one-note, with issues like alcohol use introduced out of nowhere and motivations more or less dictated to us. These aren’t people we can root for on their rocky but predestined path to fame and fortune — they’re plot delivery devices stuffed between music videos. Even Queen Latifah and Benjamin Bratt seem wasted as a God-fearing den mother and a greaseball talent agent. What could be tentpole, Cookie-esque characters in the hands of seasoned veterans are instead equally shallow clichés. This didn’t have to be a death blow: Camp is par for the Lee Daniels course. But tedium isn’t.

Empire’s strength has never been in the writing, but at least it has actors who can craft a character when there isn’t one on the page — one actor in particular. Star feels flat from the jump, with no amount of histrionics enough to shock it into vitality. When you start with a stabbing, it’s nearly impossible to up the ante, particularly when you don’t preface your screaming matches with any emotional groundwork. Just when it’s primed to expand, Lee Daniels’s fiefdom is beginning to feel cramped.