Comfort Watch of the Month: Starstruck on HBO Max

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Comfort Watch of the Month: <i>Starstruck</i> on HBO Max

Comfort Watch of the Month is a new column dedicated to the happiest television shows available on streaming. Each month, I will give a full rundown on why a different series should be your go-to comfort watch, breaking them down into three categories: Family + Friends, Conflict, and Love. At the end, these shows will be given a score—not a numerical value, but a comfortable feeling or situation that they evoke.

The creators of these shows infuse love and care into their projects. They feature characters we can relate to, or we aspire to be. They give us hope in humanity, belief that everything will turn out okay if we’re all just a tad bit kinder. They’re still well-made, but unabashedly sweet, never afraid to make you cry—but happy tears only. They put a big, cheesy smile on my face. Maybe they can do the same for you.

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The premise of Rose Matafeo’s Starstruck can be boiled down to a single line: Jessie sleeps with Tom after a drunken New Year’s Eve party, only to find out in the morning that he’s famous. The execution of Starstruck becomes harder to pin down, as the show ebbs and flows through the two’s relationship, an the knots and tangles of fast love. Relationships often feel impossible, regardless of the A-list fame swirling around the daily difficulties of being committed. Matafeo’s series, recently picked up for its third season on HBO Max, embraces the messiness of dating, of liking and loving another person, by both bucking and welcoming classic rom-com tropes in one (or two) big romantic gestures.

Starring Matafeo as Jessie and the consistently-charming Nikesh Patel as Tom Kapoor, an action-movie star who just goes to regular-people bars for NYE, the light comedy looks at the realism of dating in the year 2022. It’s full of stops and starts, of missed opportunities and muddled confusion, of an inability to jump into anything new without testing all of the surrounding waters. Matafeo and Patel show off-the-charts chemistry thanks to their charisma, riffing off one another with banter that new couples often dream of and steady couples sometimes seem to lack. They both bring effervescence to an odd, real group of actors, all of whom quip their way around London.

The comedy finds insight in the loneliness of living in a metropolitan city, especially for those with family elsewhere. Jessie’s relatives live in New Zealand, and Tom simply seems alone as someone without too many close friends or family members, until late in the second season when his brother comes into the fold. He finds solace in the regularity of Jessie’s life and her tight group of friends, all of which contribute to the more joke-heavy portions of the show. Still, the British series works best when Jessie and Tom share the frame, pulling you closer into their relationship with every episode, giving you a stake in their happiness even when their romance is a longshot. Nothing is forced in Starstruck; instead, Matafeo, her friends, and boyfriends (both new and old) bring levity to dating, bringing a smile to any audience member’s face, including mine.


Family + Friends

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Family takes a backseat in Starstruck, with Jessie’s friendships filling up the majority of the time. Several of these friends are ex-boyfriends and ex-one-night-stands, but her best friend, Kate (Emma Sidi, Matafeo’s real-life roommate), gets constant moments to shine. Kate and Jessie have all of the hallmarks of a special friendship: bickering, giant hugs, holiday celebrations, and healthy doses of truth. Often, Kate laughs up every scene she’s in, through her interactions with her Bitcoin-loving, awkward boyfriend, Ian (Al Roberts), or through her sheer excitement every time Tom enters their apartment. She’s welcoming, but not manic; she’s excitable but not absurd; she’s the perfect best friend. And as Matafeo’s real roommate and real friend, one who doesn’t mind using an old-timey accent for no reason at all, it works to a tee.

The rest of the cast fills out around Matafeo and Patel, adding bursts of light in the larger dinner and party scenes. They’re like any other late-20s, early-30s groups, but just a tiny bit cooler: they go to pub quizzes (and get banned), they throw costume murder mystery parties (incredibly fun!), and they play ??a game where they guess a celebrity based on height and whether they can fit through a specific door. And nearly all of them like Tom, partly because he’s famous, partly because he’s a regular guy who shows up to bachelor parties even when he’s about to head out for a gig.

This friend group, though chaotic, has an undeniable homey quality, an acceptance to continue bringing people around regardless of their flaws. Jessie, without her relatives, has made a found family: people to spend Christmas with or a Wednesday night with, friends who continue to age but still love singing karaoke. The heart of the series will always be Jessie and Tom’s relationship, but these friends make the rollercoaster of dating a little less queasy.


Conflict

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Starting a relationship takes time, trust, and vulnerability. With Tom’s hectic schedule and Jessie’s initial inability to exhibit the latter two traits, these lovebirds ebb and flow throughout the two seasons. They don’t leap into anything, seeing one another sporadically and continuing to find the same connection. Both Tom and Jessie don’t have a person, though. And we all feel lonely when we feel like we don’t have that someone who gets us, who wants to spend time with us each and every day, who wants to share their life with us. That isolation, coupled with Jessie’s faraway family, puts the movie theater worker in a state of constant uncertainty.

Jessie’s past relationships seep into the show, with her ex-boyfriend or ex-flames (one of whom is now a good friend) all part of her life. She oscillates between her excitement and connection with Tom and the safety and comfort of these past hook-ups, even if the majority of these guys treat her poorly. These men pop up and create another layer of mayhem, confusion that happens like clockwork in Starstruck. To Tom, she’s one of one, in the sincerest, cheesiest way.

There’s a level of self-consciousness for Jessie in this relationship, an inability to feel comfortable with Tom in her life. She overthinks every situation, and Tom doesn’t always save her, getting easily consumed with fans, other actors, and the busyness of his life. The idea that Tom and Jessie exist in different worlds rings true, but, when they’re together, they’re dynamite, so all of the conflict and noise often fades away. The show remains relatable with these difficulties, highlighting the endless amount of little fights that stunt the beginning of any relationship. The way that we second-guess ourselves, the way that past boyfriends/girlfriends worm their way into our lives, the way that two people dance around saying exactly what they’re feeling and thinking; Matafeo displays all of it in the first two seasons of Starstruck.


Love

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As with any good rom-com, love remains at the center of Starstruck. But not the kind of love usually reserved for these types of series and movies. Starstruck’s love is disorganized, tangled, difficult. It’s a process that takes months and months, even for two people to begin dating, let alone committing to a serious relationship. It mirrors real life in this way; dating isn’t simple, quick, or straightforward. It’s constant work; it’s like playing red light/green light, yet most often only seeing yellow lights.

Should Tom and Jessie be together? It’s not a question with a definitive “yes” answer, but that’s the reality of life. Relationships rarely feel perfect. Instead, at least in the first weeks and months, they sway due to collective nerves, a lack of trust in oneself and the other person, and a fear of being heartbroken. The morning after they sleep together, Tom is visibly nervous and doesn’t know how to act. It doesn’t matter that he’s famous. He’s just another person navigating something new.

With Matafeo and Patel’s chemistry and charm, the British comedy soars towards sweetness, cute moments littered every few minutes. When Tom tells Jessie he’s falling in love, she responds, “I hate that.” She cares for him when he gets too high. His contact is “Tom Famous” in her phone. And they continuously find reasons to talk on the phone, to run into one another, and to pursue this half-relationship.

But, as Starstruck shows, with the right person, the highs outweigh the lows, the peaks outnumber the valleys, and the feeling of being loved and loving is worth it. Still, the series is willing to take swings and it knows the impact of a big, romantic gesture. It will light up your face, and give you a charming, flawed couple to root for: two people who you desperately want to be together. It’s reinventing romantic comedies while still honoring the characters and couple that came before it. To put it in simpler terms, Starstruck is absolutely wonderful.

Comfort Score:Like being at a New Year’s Eve party with all of your favorite people in your best friend’s apartment (or your favorite neighborhood bar), counting down to midnight before kissing someone you truly care for.

All 12 episodes of Starstruck are available to stream on HBO Max.


Brooklyn-based film and TV journalist Michael Frank contributes to several outlets including The Film Stage, RogerEbert, AwardsWatch, and now Paste. He believes Juliette Binoche deserved an Oscar for Dan in Real Life. You can find him on Twitter.

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