tv review

Starstruck Conjures the Magic of Everyday Romance

Photo: Mark Johnson/HBO Max

Starstruck is a series full of fantastic, seemingly counterintuitive choices. “Seemingly” because they’re often blindingly obvious once you look at them, and yet they fly in the face of many accepted norms in contemporary romantic comedies. The series is created and co-written by its star, New Zealand comedian Rose Matafeo, who is distinctive and charming and down-to-earth but not in the way romantic comedy often conceives of those terms. (She is not, for instance, perfect in every way except for one hang-up that has led to her being single forever.) The series adopts a much-loved romantic premise — regular person falls in love with movie star — but rather than the Notting Hill model, where their lives are turned upside down by fame, Starstruck frames this as a quotidian annoyance. Jessie and her boyfriend, Tom (Nikesh Patel), are roughly the same height, a yawn-worthy observation and yet almost shockingly radical within rom-com land.

One of my favorite of the series’ unusual and yet completely straightforward choices is the very first scene in season two, which hits HBO Max on Thursday and begins at the exact moment season one left off. Jessie and Tom are on the way to the airport, where Jessie is planning to board a plane and move back to New Zealand. She does not have a flourishing career in London, she has no family, and it doesn’t make sense to stay in this expensive city where she has few serious ties. Jessie and Tom’s relationship has been fun but casual; no one has made any real declarations. Season one ends with the bus pulling up to the stop where Jessie should transfer for the airport … and then she doesn’t. It’s exactly what Starstruck is so good at, this translation of enormous, giddy romantic tropes into everyday settings and circumstances. But the typical move in this kind of story would be to jump ahead, to skip to the part where the leads have moved in together and are madly in love, but then problems arise — you get the idea.

That is not Starstruck’s MO. Season two begins right there in that moment when Jessie decides to stay. She and Tom are overjoyed! They’re in love! This is going to be great! Then the bus keeps driving, and Jessie begins to spin out a little. How is this going to work? She can’t bring herself to go back to her apartment now that she’s done this big, dramatic farewell. She quit her job. She’s spent all her money on the plane ticket home. The uncomfortable, semi-surreal gulf between her life and Tom’s has not gone away. Tom isn’t quite sure what to say to her, and she isn’t sure what she wants from him. So they circle each other’s feelings and avoid each other’s eyes, and in its own way, this is also exquisitely romantic. It’s a lovely sequence that carries a thrill of emotional realism, full of fumbling missteps and attempts at grand gestures that misfire wildly. And it’s all the more appealing because it’s a bit surprising that this very awkward day is even part of the story, much less the crucial first act.

Every element of Starstruck works from this general idea. The series is a romantic comedy but with the narrative focus just slightly off-center from where it’s usually fixed. Yes, there are big argument scenes as Jessie and Tom try to figure each other out, but they occur around the edges — much of the attention is on either the buildup or the aftermath. There are heartwarming romantic set pieces, too, but Starstruck is just as interested in how the pair works their way into and out of those experiences as it is in indulging the moment itself.

Two things come out of Starstruck’s fundamentally just-off-center rom-com structure. The first is that, though the show is light and brief — like the first season, the second is only six episodes, all under 30 minutes — its world is remarkably well drawn. Jessie’s roommate and friends have distinctive personalities and quirks; her job at a movie theater is full of funny, odd textures; and every set is jam-packed with little props, costumes, and lighting elements that make them feel individual and well used. Jessie’s room is a cluttered mess, and her bed is tiny and perpetually rumpled. She gets in arguments with her film club (which consists of herself and two much older women) in scenes that have no narrative momentum but make Jessie’s world more full. Tom’s apartment is oddly clean, and he goes to work meetings at classy, restrained restaurants, and all of this has no direct bearing on why he and Jessie are in a fight, but it makes everything more grounded and immediate.

The other crucial result of Starstruck’s off-kilter approach is that Jessie and Tom are defined by who they are as people rather than who they are in their relationship. It’s an immediately palpable feature of romance novels and most rom-com movies — that thing where you meet a protagonist, then you meet her romantic co-lead, and you can feel the way they’ve been constructed just so they fit together. They have no purpose except to eventually kiss, and their lives and personalities are shaped to fit that moment. There’s absolutely an appeal to that model, don’t get me wrong; it creates a magnetic inevitability that’s wildly comforting. At no point do you wonder if the couple will work out. But it also creates two leads who have no structural integrity without the other, like half an arch that can’t stay upright without something to lean on.

Because Starstruck is so invested in everything that happens outside the big romantic building blocks, Jessie and Tom exist in this show as two people who could easily continue their lives without each other. When there is a weird tension between them, or when one of them contemplates leaving, the weight of it is different. They could leave. They really are an unlikely match. So when they do choose one another, it’s that much more lovely and improbable.

There’s something about romance that often seems to happen in a vacuum or a fantasy world, as if the perfection of enormous, improbable declarations of love could only work in a setting that’s been built in a lab to sustain this level of emotion. (Yes, this is a comment on Bridgerton.) Romance, in those stories, becomes the only thing that matters because it’s the only thing, because the rest of the world is empty or was designed solely to push these two people into each other’s arms. Starstuck’s magic is that it chooses the opposite. Its world is full. Its protagonists are people who somehow keep ending up together even though they could so easily fall apart. It’s funny and a little heightened and very smart, but it’s more interested in ordinary things than grand gestures. Which is lovely, because when Starstruck does finally land on a grand gesture, the surprise and pleasure of it is all the greater.

Starstruck Conjures the Magic of Everyday Romance