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television review

‘Star’ has ties to ‘Empire’ — and that’s not necessarily good

From left: Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny, and Brittany O’Grady in “Star.”Annette Brown/FOX

Like many, I had an “Empire” moment early last year, when I fell in deep like with Fox’s story of a wealthy black family at the top of the music industry, and the three sons vying for control of the business. It was too much fun, largely thanks to the cheekiness of Taraji P. Henson’s take-no-prisoners Cookie, and it was refreshing to see a relevant soap hip-hopera on mainstream TV. And then, quickly, disappointment set in — and lower ratings, too — as “Empire” began tripping over its own heels with sloppy story lines, excessive melodrama, and self-conscious stunt-casting. The only remaining lures: Cookie and her drag.

Now, “Empire” co-creator Lee Daniels is introducing a new Fox music-industry drama with Tim Donaghy, called “Star.” The show isn’t a duplicate of “Empire,” as it explores fame from the bottom up instead of the top down, but it’s clearly an effort to coopt the “Empire” audience before it falls too far. “Star” is the story of an impetuous 17-year-old named Star (Jude Demorest) who desperately wants to be a star, a double meaning that sums up the show’s obviousness. Star and her younger half-sister, Simone (Brittany O’Grady), bust out of their abusive foster homes and head to Atlanta to hook up with Star’s Instagram friend Alexandra (Ryan Destiny) and form a girl group. They stay with hair salon owner and church singer Carlotta (Queen Latifah), Star’s godmother, and seek out the support of manager Jahil (Benjamin Bratt).


I’m not feeling the same urge to take up “Star” as I did with “Empire,” partly because the premiere is so poorly written, and partly because I feel a bit burned by “Empire.” Of course, pilots are famously awkward, as they struggle to let audiences know too much too quickly, making characters openly state who they are rather than letting them emerge gradually. But the dialogue is ridden with clichés, and the issues — Simone’s addiction problem, for example — are hammered home. In the first 15 minutes, you can label the girls as Driven (Star), Hot Mess (Simone), and Prissy (Alexandra). The danger that “Star,” like “Empire,” will become overly operatic and emotionally simplistic, and that it will run through too much plot too fast, is clear.

The tone of “Star” seems mixed up from the start. On the one hand, it tries to strike a grittier note than “Empire,” as it explores the hard knocks of foster care life, including rape and workhouse treatment. “She ain’t worth the money we’re getting for her,” Star’s foster mother complains about her at the start of the series, Wednesday at 9 p.m. Jahil is down and out, the girls are desperate enough to perform in a strip club and Star is willing to go further, and their efforts to mix with Carlotta’s hairdressers don’t go smoothly, not least of all because Star is white. The scenarios never get quite as unrelentingly dark as they did in Daniels’s “Precious,” a portrait of poverty, despair, and the challenges of breaking out, but the show tries to emphasize that the girls’ path to glory won’t be easy.


On the other hand, the girls’ path to glory seems to be happening with relative ease. Lip service is paid to the difficulty of climbing out and up, but we can see that Star and Co. are going to hit the jackpot. Also, “Star” delivers musical segments that are far too slick to blend in with the story. Instead of grounding the performances in the scenes, the three girls break into songs and dances that are super rehearsed and, as a result of all the production work, generic. They’re a professional group really quickly; there’s no attempt to show the girls in rehearsals growing into a musical force in the weeks after they first get together.


The performances aren’t enough to overcome the problems with the show. Queen Latifah is the easiest to take, as the maternal figure who once had her own chance to make it in the music business. But she’s the calming presence, the voice of reason and questions of faith, a role that defies juiciness. She’s sweet, but she isn’t close to a Cookie.


Starring Queen Latifah, Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny, Brittany O’Grady, Amiyah Scott, Benjamin Bratt. On Fox, Wednesday night, 9-10

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.