Between hosting the Weisz/Fraser Mummy movies and providing users with an easily accessible alphabetic library in lieu of a clutter of algorithm-curated playlists, HBO Max is killing the streaming game. The premium movie network became better known for its original TV programming long before the age of apps, but streaming technology opened the door to new distribution deals and co-productions with international networks. For myself, the crown jewel of HBO Max is Starstruck.
The British sitcom follows Jessie, a millennial New Zealander played by the most charming person on TV, comedian and show creator Rose Matafao, and her will-they-or-won’t-they courtship with Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel), a famous actor she drunkenly hooks up with on New Year’s Eve. Returning this spring, Season 2 (or “Series” 2 as they say in the UK) explores the pair as an official couple after Jessie decides to stay in the country to pursue a relationship with Tom. But for a show all about modern romance, the platonic relationship between Jessie and her flatmate Kate is the show’s most captivating.
No offense to Kapoor/Patel, but the chemistry between Jessie and Kate is so real. Literally. Learning that Kate is played by Matafao’s real-life friend and former flatmate, Emma Sidi, is the icing on the cake that is their gratifying representation of those of us who are playfully combative with our best mates. It’s a special kind of love shared between two cheeky bastards.
Making friends is very similar to dating. You present a carefully curated version of yourself to people, opening up bit by bit as you go from strangers to kin (or break up). Some friends never step outside the honeymoon phase. Chaotic friendships, however, are well over that bit and thriving past it. We’re combative because it fits us and candid because we truly understand each other. This dismissal of formalities and “squad goals” aesthetics is a result of finding someone you are completely comfortable around. Jessie and Kate embody this dynamic. No opinion is kept to oneself, and no bullshit is given nor accepted. Snarky comments are thrown like no-look passes, the kind of maneuvers that can only work between trusted teammates. From personal experience, I can say that this fiery frankness is a gift, albeit one quite susceptible to misunderstanding. This kind of bold interplay is often erroneously chalked up to cattiness the same way confidence in women gets branded as arrogance. It might seem like Jessie and Kate are each other’s harshest critics, but they’re just shrewd observers and passionate allies. Their rapport is as close as one can get to talking to your own reflection.
This combativeness is clearly an earned progression and not like what you see among most other TV casts. While characters in sitcoms often exchange sarcastic retorts, it’s usually just a result of the format. It’s a vehicle for delivering jokes, rather than a unique relationship trait. For example, the way Monica talks to Rachel on Friends is how she speaks to everyone, and they to her in turn. While Kate is a bit extra in general, it’s only with Jessie do you see it effortlessly roll off her back. The resolute flatmate naturally throws her sass right back and keeps it moving. One such display comes in Season 2’s second episode, as Kate chastises Jessie for her reckless, gut-spilling letter writing campaign she engaged in when she thought she was leaving the country. Jessie’s mission to steal back each letter sees its first success when she correctly recognizes Kate’s goodbye hug as a mere ruse to snatch her letter back. Equally disgusted with each other, they sarcastically wish each other a Merry Christmas (“ya filthy biiitch”) as Kate departs the restaurant only to turn the corner, knock on the glass, and blow Jessie a kiss goodbye. Typical behavior.
This playfully rowdy dynamic is perfect fodder for a sitcom because it’s a comical one in real life, too. Long spats with my close friends usually end in laughter when one of us points out how ridiculously aggressive we are being. Like in Starstruck, it’s not a “How do you put up with them?” trope, but rather a “This is why we’re friends” kind of thing. It’s not a flaw, it’s a fun perk.
This nonchalant attitude is what separates our dynamic duo from toxic tropes like the frenemies, overbearing fathers, and big brother bully syndrome. These characters are downright nasty to each other until a it-would-be-evil-not-to-help situation arises to supposedly prove their love for their “friend,” and in turn, validates their everyday treatment of them, like how the worst person you knew in high school has done two mission trips. This isn’t tough love—it’s bullying with a line that won’t be crossed. Jessie and Kate choose to be friends every day. Their words and actions are fueled by genuine affection. Unlike Tom and Cath, his callous agent brilliantly played by Minnie Driver, they’re not entrapped by obligations to bloodlines, school, or work, although they did briefly work at the same flower shop for a hot minute (“All these flowers are dead! Grow up.”). Despite sharing a flat, it’s clear one of them would leave if they found the other to be unbearable, regardless of financial status.
You can see a similar distinction in the difference between traditional and modern comedy roasts. Roasts were typically amongst friends, with the dais sharing a genuine respect for the roastee. Attending a traditional roast is a delight; first-person experiences yield the best jokes, as the comics look beyond the surface. Everyone’s an expert on their topic and can deliver the real hard-hitting jabs. However, with roasts like Comedy Central’s celebrity specials and tournaments, the roasters are dressing down strangers or vague acquaintances at best, and for the latter, they tend to be notoriously controversial figures that are already considered punchlines. This indifference is why every roast battle with a woman employs the same generic “fat, smelly whore” template rather than jokes tailored to the individual. And as for the Justin Bieber and Donald Trump-like roasts, the only insincerity comes from the roaster’s closing “but seriously, guys…” statement.
While Jessie’s dating life is a hot mess, she’s found “the one” with Kate. The two are cut from the same cloth. It’s only under tight scrutiny that their differences rack up and stand out. Still, Jessie and Kate are not foils; rather, their personalities are just formatted in different fonts. It’s not an unlikely animal friendship, like when a dog befriends a duck. This is a friendship between a Dobermann and a dachshund, and with dogs, if you’re not used to being around them, one can confuse playing with fighting. It’s not something that works for all personalities, but at least it’s never boring when it does.
As with romantic ones, platonic relationships hinge on mutual chemistry, rather than a checklist of shared superficial interests. To put it plainly, it’s vibes, baby. If Starstruck is a love letter to romcoms, then consider this my love letter to the chaotic friendship of Jessie and Kate and the special bonds of female friendship. They offer something unique, and in some cases, an HBO Max password.
Olivia Cathcart is a comedian and writer.