Is Lee Daniels' rags-to-riches R&B drama Star better than Empire?

The show shares similarities with the ratings hit but a more intriguing character arc and a hint of darker issues suggests it might be the savvier choice

Fox’s mega-hyped midseason drama, Star, opens with the titular aspiring singer – an orphan who’s been bounced around foster homes most of her life – FaceTiming on a cracked iPhone. An iPhone 5, even. It’s a small touch, but a clear signifier that Lee Daniels’ Empire follow-up won’t be trafficking in the same lavishness that defines that show.

Minus the expensive clothes, champagne and casually thrown shade, Empire is, at its core, a TV series about a nouveau riche black family who will do anything and everything to protect their fortune. The fear of one day having to go back to the ghetto (or, worse, back to prison) motivates the morally questionable behavior of Cookie and Lucious Lyon. The writing staff does its best to engender audience sympathy for the power-hungry, fabulously wealthy Lyon dynasty (their success varies from character to character, season to season) but it’s hard to sustain much of a dramatic thrust when your protagonists are both already on top of their profession and have never met an antagonist who can best them for more than a three-episode arc.

Star feels like a reaction to the narrative rut that Empire finds itself in. The three leads – Star (Jude Demorest), her half-sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) and sad little rich girl Alexandra (Ryan Destiny, who is blessed with a name that sounds like a character from an anime) – don’t have everything they want. Really, they just don’t have anything. They arrive in Atlanta hoping to become a successful pop act without any actual knowledge of how to go about it. Instead, they find that everyone around them seems to think they understand the way to stardom – their Bible-thumping godmother (Queen Latifah) and her daughter, and a sleazy manager played by Benjamin Bratt.

The Empire formula is still there – climactic musical numbers, shocking cliffhangers, awkwardly shot scenes of titillation, splashes of grim violence, a peculiar relationship between the unsavory world of show business and down-home Christian values – but in service of a classic underdog story. Star and friends shampoo hair in exchange for a free place to stay. Their first performance is in front of a somnambulistic bar crowd. Their manager may or may not be totally full of it. We don’t even see our first mansion for two-thirds of the show’s runtime. It’s all faded glory and untapped potential, as though one of Cookie’s magnificent leopard-print outfits got dragged by a city bus for a few miles.

Underneath all the pluck is a layer of creeping dread too. Star is naive, but not in a cute, Will Ferrell-in-Elf sort of way. Her physicality and willingness to survive at all costs reminds me more of Nomi Malone, the hero of Paul Verhoeven’s camp classic Showgirls. Nomi comes from nothing, uses her wit and her sexuality to thrive, dances her way to the good life, then finds herself corrupted and right back where she started. If we can take it seriously for a moment, Showgirls was both an indictment of ambition and also an ode to the struggle of women to navigate a male-dominated industry. The film’s elliptical ending promises that Nomi hasn’t been totally discouraged by the last 131 minutes of psychological torture, peer pressure and freaky pool sex with Kyle MacLachlan.

Demorest’s performance as Star exudes the same sort of extreme self-belief and determination that some might mistake for stupidity. It’s certainly more believable than whatever Elizabeth Berkley was going for in Showgirls. If this show is also a meditation on the corrosive power of fame, then it might end up going to places far darker than Empire. Just in the pilot, Star presents itself as a grittier program. Substance abuse, PTSD, hate crimes and sexual assault all get brought up with more gravity than they would be on the gilded sets of Empire. The stakes here really matter and when the final cliffhanger dropped, I felt more genuine interest in what happens next than I have in at least two seasons of Empire. Star will inevitably be compared to its network sibling, thanks to its structural similarities, parallel workplace settings and the shared presence of Lee Daniels. I just spent a few hundred words doing just that. It’s natural, but hopefully by the end of Star’s first season we won’t even be thinking of Empire. Whether it’s a classic rags-to-riches fable or a cautionary tale, Star is already more alive than Empire has been in years.


Dave Schilling

The GuardianTramp

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