“He’s a famous actor, and you’re a little rat nobody.” It’s a tried-and-true fanfiction scenario, the inverse plot of Notting Hill, and now, the premise of HBO Max’s truly delightful Starstruck. Premiering first on BBC Three in April, the London-based romantic comedy follows Jessie (Rose Matafeo) after she has a drunken New Year’s Eve one-night stand with Tom (Nikesh Patel), only to learn the next day that he is a famous actor. Anyone who’s seen a rom-com can probably guess what happens next: a will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation, a disastrous fight, an eventual reconciliation. But while Starstruck riffs off a familiar fantasy, it stays grounded in its approach, playing with genre tropes with great aplomb.
New Zealander comedian Matafeo puts all of her talents on display in the role; in addition to starring as Jessie, she executive produces and co-writes with friend and fellow Auckland-native Alice Snedden. Karen Maine is the series’ director, a fitting choice considering she co-wrote the offbeat abortion rom-com Obvious Child. The six 22-minute episodes take place over the course of a year, with each dedicated to one of the four seasons, bookended by New Year’s Eve and Christmas. The timeline is perfectly paced, allowing Jessie and Tom’s relationship to follow a natural progression without falling into an insta-love trap; the pair are able to navigate giddy crush feelings, the awkwardness of encountering an old hookup, and a tentative friendship with flirty undercurrents.
If anything, the most implausible aspect of the show is that Jessie — who works at a cinema, reels off The Outsiders trivia at a pub quiz, and has movie posters scattered in her flat — doesn’t initially recognize Tom. Though this works to their advantage, Tom’s blunt agent Cath (Minnie Driver, guest starring) notes how “civilians” know way too much about his personal life for them to have equal footing. Plus, Tom is famous and wealthy, which means there’s also class difference with Jessie, who works two jobs to make rent in a shared flat. Starstruck partially sidesteps this imbalance by showing that Tom pines for her more than the reverse. Jessie’s no Y/N fanfiction self-insert without an interior life, and the show takes time to explore other relationships, like her lived-in friendship with neurotic flatmate Kate (Emma Sidi, who lives with Matafeo IRL).
Starstruck similarly avoids predictability on how Tom’s fame affects the central relationship. No nasty tabloid rumors or hordes of jealous fans here. Some fish-out-of-water comedy gets mined when Tom interacts with Jessie’s awestruck friends, but Jessie herself never follows the show’s title. Instead, she saves his number in her phone as “Tom Famous” and simply goes on with her life (She’s “Jessie NYE” in his). When she dances with glee on her way home from a successful hookup, blasting “Return of the Mack,” it’s not Tom inspiring her celebration but some rando who she plans on never seeing again.
Communication errors and misunderstandings derail the couple’s romance more than anything else. Matafeo and Snedden relish in the overanalytic rituals of modern dating, like when Jessie coordinates her bra/underwear or pretends she didn’t have Tom’s number saved. In one episode, Tom, anxious about overwhelming Jessie, pumps the brakes with a curt goodnight: “It was great to see you, pal.” Hold on — pal? Ouch. Jessie and Kate read between the lines with a shared grimace. On the other side of the door, Tom groans, too.
Matafeo is the heart of the show, lighting up the screen with all the energy of a screwball comedy lead. After a decade-plus of stand-up experience and a HBO Max special Horndog, her well-honed comedic chops come at no surprise, but she keeps Jessie’s character balanced with vulnerability. In the penultimate episode, a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day causes Jessie to lash out and spiral as she realizes her life in London hasn’t turned out like she hoped. Years of frustration and homesickness bubble up to the surface in a monologue that shows Matafeo at her best. Her delivery helps the moment feel earned, despite us only catching recent glimpses of Jessie’s time abroad.
Patel debatably faces a harder task as Tom. We spend less time with the character, and he needs to be charismatic, but endearing; confident, but not smarmy. He provides a nice foil to Matafeo’s Jessie, and the series shines most when the two play off each other. Rebuffing the recent spell of dry rom-com couples, Jessie and Tom have genuine sexual chemistry. A simple shift in body language deliciously heightens the tension. During a tentative conversation about period sex, Tom closes the space between them, quipping, “You do know that I am an adult man, don’t you?” Jessie’s expression says it all. The duo’s charming banter never feels manufactured either. From their initial meet-cute in a nightclub men’s restroom, a vein of awkwardness runs through their interactions as they work out the communication kinks that come with getting to know someone.
While we do get peeks at Tom’s interior life, Starstruck keeps Jessie in the spotlight. This is the right approach considering the season’s short runtime, but consequently, he’s comparatively underdeveloped. Aside from the romance, his primary arc involves the promotional tour for Siege on Olympus, a trashy action blockbuster that leaves him wondering whether he should star in an indie flick, a non-problem that Jessie gently pokes fun at. With Season 2 already confirmed, hopefully the show delves further into Tom’s world.
Starstruck is clearly the product of people who unabashedly love rom-coms. Inspired by the genre’s classics, the show provides a light-hearted modern update with a protagonist who toys with expectations. I’ll keep it vague, but the season’s final moments are so lovely and understated that the tenderness took my breath away. (And it has been renewed for Season 2). Clocking in right over two hours, Starstruck makes for a quick summer watch that leaves you wanting to linger in the escapist joy for a little longer. Just like a good rom-com should.
All six episodes of Starstruck are now streaming on HBO Max.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
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