Long ago and far away back in the 1990s, a certain kind of romantic comedy was all the rage at the local multiplex. These films usually starred big-name actresses like Julia Roberts or Jennifer Lopez in stories that tried to convince us these women actually faced regular everyday problems and dated boring, dorky men (who just happened to look like Hugh Grant). They followed very specific formulas that included carefully measured doses of serotonin and heartbreak, often culminating in either incredibly grand or deeply awkward public gestures where someone has to make a big swoony speech to someone else. And they were awesome.
From Love Actually and Never Been Kissed to Four Weddings and a Funeral and My Best Friend’s Wedding, the 1990s rom-com was a truly formative emotional vehicle for many of us. But despite its widespread popularity, the genre basically vanished overnight in the early aughts, as more action-oriented blockbusters began to dominate theaters, and studios became more interested in making raunchy comedies that happened to include elements of dating or sex rather than real romances focused on specific relationships.
This is a big part of the reason that HBO Max comedy Starstruck feels like such a breath of fresh air. A throwback to the romantic comedies of yesterday that still understands and embraces its place in the contemporary television landscape, the series is a delight from start to finish, fully deserving of the steady drumbeat of word of mouth and social media buzz that built around its initial premiere last year. Perhaps we all needed the reminder that this medium doesn’t have to be quite so full of grim procedurals and angsty medical dramas, because Starstruck’s perfect mix of biting honesty and heartfelt relationship humor feels like almost nothing else on-air at the moment.
The show follows a 20-something New Zealand expat named Jessie (Rose Matafeo) who lives in London and who hooks up with handsome Tom (Nikesh Patel) at a New Year’s party, only to discover the next morning that he’s actually a famous movie star. What follows is a distinctly less annoying take on Notting Hill, as the pair’s will they/won’t they connection slowly blossoms into something real. The season ends with Jessie deciding—while on the bus on the way to the airport in true rom-com fashion—to forgo her plans to return home to New Zealand in order to stay in England and make a real go of things with Tom. The season ends with a dramatic kiss, but little idea as to what happens next.
Which is where Season 2 comes in. Picking up literally moments later, as the pair stand outside a bus stop, Starstruck upends the satisfaction of Season 1 emotional climax, as Jessie and Tom all of a sudden have to face a new and very different reality. And where the series’ first season reimagined a classic will they/won’t they romance, its second asks: What’s next? What comes after the grand gesture, when the question of Tom and Jessie’s relationship status is both answered and affirmative? How does a rom-com ending translate into real life?
Starstruck carefully takes Jessie and Tom into that next stage of their relationship, filled with the usual pitfalls and shared awkwardness that is part and parcel of seriously dating someone (first holiday together, the perils of deciding on gifts, meeting the family, and first attempts at phone sex). It also forces both Tom and Jessie to realize that their new partners are three-dimensional people, with both lives (families) and pasts (exes) that existed before they entered the scene. The fact of their relationship—and Jessie’s momentous decision—forces the pair to begin turning their private, undefined connection into something more solid, and to try to find common ground on a variety of complicated issues.
Jessie is a fish out of water in Tom’s world (which, let’s face it, even he doesn’t seem to like very much), and has to worry about mundane things like money in a way that he never will. Tom, for his part, struggles both with Jessie’s impetuous nature and his own emotional insecurities. (or what it’s worth, Starstruck’s decision to give Tom greater depth this season pays off in spades.) The two clash most specifically over one of Jessie’s exes, a subplot that dives into issues of self-sabotage and the ways our fear of committing to something new can often make us want to return to the safety of the past, even if that past was kind of toxic.
But Matafeo and Patel’s fantastic chemistry is more than capable of carrying the pair through their bumpiest moments, and the show does a rather remarkable job of reshaping the contours of their epic first season will they/won’t they story into something that is new and different, but no less compelling than it was before.
Part of the reason Starstruck is so appealing is that it never asks viewers to question whether Jessie and Tom will get—or stay—together. It’s so obvious from their first scenes with one another in Season 1 that they’re endgame and that it’s not a question of if they’ll be together but when. Season 2 follows a similar roadmap, interjecting problems for the pair that any new couple must figure out ways to face, but never for once hinting that the duo won’t be able to solve them in the end. And in a television landscape that thrives on love triangles that run for decades and marquee couples who spend as much time apart as they do together, this is a strangely comforting truth.
In the real world, wanting to be with someone isn’t the end of the story. After all, no matter how grand a gesture might be, it is still merely one day out of many, and real love requires continuing to choose that person for every day afterward, even when they’re annoying or embarrassing or don’t consider your perspective as often as you’d like. Learning to compromise—to truly be together, rather than just get together is an ongoing, potentially never-ending process. It’s maybe not as cinematic as those romantic comedies of the past we all loved. But it’s a lot more true to life.