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‘Star’ Review: Lee Daniels Descends Into Poverty Porn With ‘Empire’ Follow-Up (Spoilers)

Lee Daniels' new Fox series trades character development for unearned empathy in a misguided rags-to-riches drama.

STAR: Jude Demorest, Ryan Destiny and Brittany O'Grady

Annette Brown/FOX

Every decision made by Star, Simone, and Alexandra over the course of “Star’s” one-hour premiere could kill them. From escaping their respective foster homes to rolling into Atlanta strip clubs with the hopes of picking up a manager, Lee Daniels’ latest Fox pilot is driven by reckless teenagers making ill-informed choices. Atlanta-beauty-shop-owner-turned-surrogate-mom Carlotta Brown (Queen Latifah) starts the show with a bit of ominous narration — “fame ain’t nothin’ but a trip” — but the show doesn’t treat these teens as cautionary tales.

Instead, this confounding pilot depicts danger in the pursuit of stardom as desirable fantasy. Rather than honestly represent the storyline’s treacherous scenarios — which include parental, drug, and alcohol abuse, as well as more outrageous extremes like murder — Daniels’ drama exploits the perilous conditions it portrays, grounding its fantasy in a false reality.

[Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for the pilot of “Star.”]

Meet Star Davis (Jude Demorest), someone who, even before she ascended to the heights of pop stardom, “don’t listen to nobody but herself.” We see Star at her bottom: living with an unloving foster mom in Pittsburgh and walking out on her “family” when asked to do the dishes. (One time too many? Because there’s a dishwasher?) From there, she convinces her social worker to give out the current address for her sister, Simone, and things only get worse from there.

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STAR: Brittany O'Grady, Queen Latifah and Jude Demorest

After walking in on her sister Simone (Brittany O’Grady) being raped by her foster father, Star walks downstairs, grabs a knife, and returns to stab the dirtbag in the back until he falls off the bed, presumably dead. It’s a problematic sequence: Unable to find an effective PG-13 perspective to film the horror of this assault and the attack that follows, the direction settles for an approach that’s inoffensive and almost goofy. The result is as unrealistic as the girls’ reactions.

In New York, the sisters pick up Alexandra Crane (Ryan Destiny), daughter of a rock star Roland Crane (Lenny Kravitz); they bonded on the internet, after Alexandra met Star on Instagram. (Testament to the power of social media in modern-day youth, or convenient plot point? You decide.) While the trio’s friendship shows signs of fraying after arriving in Atlanta, they hold together well enough to meet up with a former friend to Simone and Star’s mother, who introduces them to a few people with connections to local clubs. From there, they wow their audiences with a few minor performances, and that’s when “Star” really falls apart.

These girls are supposedly driven by their dreams, a sense of destiny, a desire to be professional singers. The only issue is they don’t seem to, you know, care about music. Sure, Alexandra criticizes her famous father as a sell-out who’s lost his old sound, but at least he demonstrated musical interest. None of them play instruments, nor show a talent or passion for singing.

Furthermore, “Star” chooses to present their performances as full-fledged fantasy dance numbers. There’s a sequence in which Carlotta’s daughter smuggles two of the three singers into a strip club, and Star convinces local talent manager Jahil Rivera (Benjamin Bratt) to join her in the champagne room. There, she starts dancing for him — on him, really — until suddenly her face is torn open like a banner at a high school football game to reveal Star on the strip club’s catwalk along with all the other employees, singing and dancing in a choreographed routine.

We’re meant to be as astounded as the audience, but it’s unclear if this is really happening or if it’s merely the distorted viewpoint of the horny dudes watching. If it’s meant to be a live performance, the dubbing and acoustics shatter that intention. If it’s not, the story doesn’t make sense. (As for the songs, they’re from “Glee” composer James S. Levine.)

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STAR: Jude Demorest Fox Lee Daniels Episode 1 Pilot premiere

There’s all sorts of storytelling conventions that might allow for fantasy sequences, but ultimately we need to believe these are talented girls who deserve to be taken seriously. However, the show gives us nothing to support that. What we’re left with are impoverished and abused teens with wretched backstories that are designed to stamp the characters with empathy.

Simone is an uncontrollable teenage drug addict and alcoholic; Alexandra is the poor little rich girl neglected by a callous father; Carlotta believes God can save everyone; Roland is the jaded pop star; Jahil is the sketchy manager finally trying to make good. We’ve seen all this before, so Daniels — who’s been accused of exploiting the poor for dramatic gain in the past  — slaps a horrifying backstory at the beginning of our journey and desaturates the video to make everything look sordid and raw.

It only makes “Star” uglier. The pilot paints the pursuit of fame as an enviable and admirable ambition: Becoming a star is worth the risks, no matter how crazy they seem. Though watching “Star” is certainly less risky than living it, we’re more than comfortable saying it’s not worth your time.

Grade: D-

“Star” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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