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How Starstruck Reinvents the Rom-Com

Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for the first season of Starstruck.

Starstruck, the new HBO Max comedy series co-written by Rose Matafeo and Alice Snedden, is quite frankly everything you’d want it to be and more. Since the show premiered its first season on the streaming service last week, it’s been gaining more and more traction via word-of-mouth buzz and social media. I myself first heard about it when the trailer first dropped, but like so many other TV shows, it sort of dropped off my radar until I saw friends on Twitter talking about how good it was — and once I pressed play on the first episode, “NYE,” I was absolutely hooked.

The show follows a twenty-something New Zealand expat named Jessie (Matafeo), who, on a night out with her best friend Kate (Emma Sidi), finds herself going home with a handsome stranger whom she later discovers is actually a hit movie star named Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel). Hijinks naturally ensue, and while there is a temptation to draw comparisons to other romantic comedies of yore (like Notting Hill, in which an ordinary travel bookstore owner played by Hugh Grant has a secret relationship with an actress played by Julia Roberts), the difference with Starstruck is that it both acknowledges the stories that came before it while feeling more like a contemporary romance novel on-screen than any of its rom-com predecessors.

There’s a lot to love about Starstruck, but one of the things it does so skillfully is put us both inside the heads of our heroine Jessie, as she navigates the ups and downs of her potential new romance, and Tom, who tries to balance both the pressures of fame and the possibility of a normal relationship for himself. It’s why I kept coming back to the fact that this show is one of the closest possible representations of a contemporary romance in a viewable format that I’ve ever seen.

Where many rom-coms can and do fall short is only showing us the story from the perspective of its lead — the protagonist constantly unlucky in love, coming back to their small hometown, or just having been dumped and needing to reinvent themselves. Most of the time, the person that the story intends for them to cross paths with is a more mysterious figure, someone who remains largely inscrutable and hard to figure out. We often don’t see inside their heads because the lead character is our in-road to the plot, as well as the one whose emotional and romantic journey is central to the story.

Many romance novels, on the other hand, do the work to put readers in the heads of both the lead and their love interest, allowing the audience to get a sense of the emotional stakes from each point of view. There are some exceptions, books where only one POV occurs throughout the entire narrative, but most of the time, these stories are giving us a way to follow along with both sides of the romantic equation, pinging back and forth like a tennis match until the very end.

That’s where Starstruck stands out in a way that other rom-coms might necessarily not. The bulk of the first season undeniably belongs to Jessie, but the show also spends time with Tom too, in moments like a lunch meeting with his agent (played hilariously by Minnie Driver) or a tense post-press junket conversation with his co-star. It not only fleshes out the show, but gives both Jessie and Tom a complexity that makes them fully realized characters rather than just romantic archetypes — and at their core, these are two people who are super into each other, but can’t seem to figure out the right time to act on those feelings.

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Image via HBO Max

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Therefore, Starstruck‘s dramatic tension doesn’t necessarily come from the question of if these two are going to get together, but when — and it’s that inevitability that definitely makes the show more reminiscent of a romance novel rather than following more of a typical rom-com format. The first season takes place over the course of a year, starting off on Jessie and Tom’s fateful New Year’s Eve meet and ending by Christmas, with each episode revolving around a certain season in between. Through it all, they never seem to really forget about each other, even if they continue to fall in and out of each other’s orbit, bumping into one another at seemingly random moments and picking up right where they left off before. There are always a few external obstacles that occur, like being interrupted by one of Tom’s co-stars right when they’re about to hook up in his hotel room, or Tom inadvertently eating pot-laced brownies that one of Jessie’s friends had made for their Christmas party. But there’s no denying that if these two could get the timing right, they could have something really special.

Of course, there’s comedy at every turn — Mataleo herself has a successful stand-up career and her talents are front-and-center here, with Jessie serving as a hilarious and lovable heroine — but something else Starstruck has going for it is its undeniable throughline of sexiness. In the role of the romantic lead (a part that can often be such a tricky tightrope to walk), Patel manages to pair emotional vulnerability with delicious charm. One scene in the first episode makes this undeniably clear from the jump; when Tom invites Jessie up to his apartment the night after they’ve slept together for the first time, she confesses that she’s just started her period that morning and even makes a self-deprecating joke in anticipation of rejection. Tom’s response is to look her right in the eye and say, unflinchingly, “You do know I’m an adult man, don’t you?” before kissing her.

The only downside to Starstruck as a series so far is that it’s a watch that goes by so quickly, you’ll wish there was more once you’re done. With six 20-minute episodes, the show is an experience that I inhaled all in one night and immediately woke up the next day wanting to watch all over again. The good news is it’s already been renewed for a second season, because I can’t fathom a world in which I don’t find out what happens next for Jessie and Tom after their exciting crescendo of a kiss in the Season 1 finale, “Christmas.” What exists out there already, though, is a hilarious, honest, and sparkling love letter to romance fans from two women who clearly know and have respect for the genre, as well as the beginnings of a rom-com series that serves as its own worthy addition to the pantheon of titles that have been beloved for decades.

Season 1 of Starstruck is currently available to stream on HBO Max.

KEEP READING: The Best Comedies on HBO Max Right Now (June 2021)


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