To those who think it’s easy to replicate a success, Empire is the proof it’s not. It took a year for FOX to find a suitable companion show for Empire and probably a year and a half before it’s on the air. Oh, last pilot season, they had Studio City, which was a pretty serious candidate but not produced in-house and when you deal with a phenomenon like Empire that gets you a ton of money, especially on a network where almost everything else is not working, you’d better think twice about what to do next. They first thought about remaking a forgotten movie, Urban Cowboy, but they rushed things and the pilot they shot ended up dead, rightfully (read the preview). They finally decided to take the easiest road: they asked Empire creator Lee Daniels to create another smash hit. He came up with Star, which is not an Empire spin-off but could have been. I don’t think it would have been a good idea though. Star is fine on its own. And forcing things rarely works. Plus they don’t need Cookie. They have their own.
I’d like to be upfront about one thing I’m convinced of: Empire without Cookie and Taraji P. Henson is nothing. Just a bunch of black males singing, doing so-so acting and being mostly irritating. She’s the star. She’s the reason why people watches it in the first place. And by the look of Star, I’d say Lee Daniels and FOX are totally aware of that and constructed the show with it in mind. It would be a mistake to announce Star, our heroin -‘cos it’s her first name- as a mini-Cookie. She has what it takes to become one at some point but we’re not there yet. And other characters like Queen Latifah’s Miss Carlotta give some Cookie vibes, and Cookie’s kind of punchlines. And it’s better this way on a longtime perspective: Star doesn’t rely on only one great character. But it takes at least three girls to make a Cookie…
Like Empire, the first pages are kind of ridiculous. No shades. No subtlety. But you become accustomed to it quickly and you get ready for the ride sooner than you expected. It starts as a roadtrip, from Pittsburgh (where Star is from) to Atlanta, with a stop in New York. And it’s engaging. Star, almost 18, leaves her foster home with three goals in mind. First, finding her sister, Simone, 16, who happens to be molested by her foster father. He may even have raped her but it’s unclear. Then, convincing Alexandra, her bestfriend she only met on the internet so far, to leave the Upper East Side where she lives with her wealthy family to go to Atlanta with her and create a band. They already wrote songs together, like “I Can Be”, heard throughout the pilot. Finally, doing whatever it takes in Atlanta to become the star she always dreamt to be, without ending up like her deceased mother: a junkie. On the road, they steal, they laugh, they sing, they argue, and it’s fun. Star is trash. And it makes her admirable for some reason. Simone is fragile, addicted but a nice gal. And Alexandra is Paris Hilton, but smarter.
When the girls arrive in Atlanta, it gets a little less fun but there are a few very enjoyable scenes like when they arrive in Miss Carlotta’s beauty salon where they meet colourful characters like Miss Bruce, a drag queen, or Danielle, who seems to come directly from Orange is the New Black. And also Cotton. Cotton is a very important character with a secret. The secret being… SPOILER ALERT… he’s a transvestite. He’s a boy, Miss Carlotta’s son, but he feels like a girl and dresses accordingly. And of course, he’s a lot of fun. I expected Carlotta Brown to be a new Cookie, but it turns out she was but she’s not anymore. Can she go back to her roots? She probably will. But for now, she’s a bigot. She believes in God and sings at church and she doesn’t want Star and her girls to make it in Atlanta’s musical scene. For a good reason: she tried a long time ago, and failed. And lost a lot in the process. Of course, Star is way too determined to listen to anything she has to say and towards the end of the pilot, she’s in deep shit! But she gets to sing in front of an audience composed of producers. That’s a start. I would be very happy to talk to you about the men in this story but there are only two main male characters: Derek, who has laid eyes on one of the girl, he’s Carlotta’s neighbor; and Jahill, someone from Carlotta’s past who looks like a good guy but he’s not. And Star will soon discover it. Lee Daniels is better at writing female characters, no doubt about it.
Star is exactly what FOX needs: a companion series for Empire that is not a copycat but another musical show set in another city, with different characters who are more Cookie than André, achieving different goals. In Empire, they try to stay on top. In Star, they try to be on top! It is aimed at a younger audience – partly the one FOX lost when Glee ended- but Star can totally please the Empire fans and become a big thing for the afro-american audience and the audience overall. It could be a fun show to watch and listen to. It’s joyful. It’s definitely more eccentric but with smaller ambitions. And maybe it’s better this way.