Fox’s Star is not a good show. In theory, that means that you shouldn’t watch Star. Yet, Star’s TV forefather, Empire, is also not a good show and remains, despite some typical problems related to rapid soapy storytelling, one of the medium’s most enjoyable viewing experiences. Despite the significant similarities between the two shows—both are the brainchild of multi-hyphenate Lee Daniels, both feature talented, diverse casts with people you like, and both deal with the music business—Star exemplifies what happens when networks try to replicate a popular formula without its most combustible elements.
When Empire caught fire in the spring of 2015, it made sense that Fox and Daniels would want to attempt a spin-off. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the Lyon family, Fox needed a new valuable property to exploit, and the music hook could draw all sorts of stars to a new project. Nonetheless, whereas Fox pulled the classic TV move and rushed Empire back to its schedule for a messy second season, the network and Daniels took their time developing Star, completing a nationwide search for the show’s core young female trio.
Another key choice was made along the way: Empire and Star would not cross over with one another, at least initially. Instead of introducing a character on Empire and then spinning them off onto their own show—as these things normally go—Daniels and co-creator Tom Donaghy crafted a new universe in Atlanta, away from Empire’s New York-based family drama. Outside of a quick promotional handoff between Empire’s Terence Howard and Star’s Lenny Kravitz, there’s no plans to bring the Lyons to ATL.
While it’s odd to suggest that a network should have rushed a show in development or relied on strategic spin-off chicanery, it’s clear after just a few episodes that Star is missing much of what makes Empire a raucous watch. It’s not just that Star lacks an electric performance and/or character like Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie; it’s that the show’s perspective and tone simply don’t allow for a performance or character like that to exist. Queen Latifah’s Carlotta, the surrogate mother to Star’s central trio, is fantastic. Benjamin Bratt is trying really hard as a troubled talent manager trying to get it together. Tyrese is here! But they’re all restrained by the show’s vision of a modern rags-to-riches tale.
Star is, essentially, the flashback snippets from Empire drawn out into an ongoing series. Like the younger versions of Cookie and Lucious, Star (Jude Demorest) and Simone (Brittany O’Grady) have led quite a traumatic, ugly life up to and through the show’s first two episodes. Parental deaths. Foster homes. Abuse. Violence. The characters played by Latifah, Bratt, and Tyrese are similarly troubled by their iffy pasts which continue to influence their less-than-stellar presents.
While Empire can temporarily dip into a depressing flashback sequence to build a character up in the present, Star lives exclusively in the less glamorous circumstances. On Empire, those moments are also in place to illustrate how Cookie and Lucious morphed into the dysfunctional pair they are today; the show isn’t exactly asking us to root for those characters in a traditional sense. On Star, the characters begin in such perilous conditions that we are clearly intended to feel for them, which only makes some of their decisions that much more dizzying.
Of course, we need shows that address problems with the foster care system, economic inequality, trans rights, or Black Lives Matter (all things part of the mix on Star), and shows that don’t exclusively want us to feel sympathy for lead characters. Not all shows can or should operate at Empire’s heightened level of reality.
Yet, you don’t get the sense that, despite its tonal differences or more overt references to these issues, Star doesn’t care about them much more than Empire. They’re simply the backdrop to tell a story you’ve seen many times before, including on the other show it’s most closely going to be compared to this winter. The circumstances of these characters are emphatically worse than those on Empire, and they seem only slightly more inconvenienced by them.
Even Star’s handling of music falters. While the choice to go heavy on dream sequences tracks for a story about unsigned artists with big dreams, there’s yet to be the kind of standout musical moments that Empire delivered almost immediately. Again, Star might be trying to go for something different, but when key elements from the formula are stripped away and all that’s left is contrived provocation, it’s hard not to make the comparison to Daniels’ other show.
Remove the destructive pacing, hyper-real tone, and powerhouse performances from Empire and you’d get Star. Remove Star from the Empire televisual universe and you have a show that feels exploitive and overwrought, with some woke signaling tossed in for good measure. The initial ratings for Star have been solid, but nowhere near Empire levels. If audiences have gotten burned out on the Lyons, it probably won’t take long for them to move on from Star as well.