‘Starstruck’ Proves That Romcom Haters May Actually Make Perfect Romcom Creators
WARNING: Contains spoilers for Starstruck (mostly regarding Season One).
Last month, when her sitcom Starstruck was about to premiere its third season in the U.K., the actor, comic and writer Rose Matafeo gave an interview to Michael Segalov for The Guardian. “Rose Matafeo: ‘I Feel a Massive Sense of Guilt for Making a Romcom,’” the headline reads, and she’s quoted in the piece pondering the issue at some length. “As I’m getting older I’m asking: why did I feel through my 20s that finding romantic love and settling down was such a motivation in life?”
Having watched this latest (and probably final) season, which arrives on Max today, I have to assure Matafeo that she has no cause for guilt. Maybe, as a genre, the romcom is historically compromised. But being as deeply suspicious of it as Matafeo apparently is should be a prerequisite for anyone who wants to make one.
Starstruck, which premiered in 2021, initially has nearly the same premise as another beloved romcom: Richard Curtis’s 1999 feature film Notting Hill. In both cases, a civilian obliviously stumbles into romance with a tremendously famous movie star. In both cases, the path to happiness is marred by potholes, including misunderstandings involving the celebrity’s equally famous exes. In both cases — and I don’t think this is a spoiler, since the “com” part of “romcom” denotes a happy ending — the star and the normie push past their fears, risking their hearts to be together.
But while Notting Hill ends there (more or less — there’s a closing montage that lets us know Hugh Grant’s William and Julia Roberts’ Anna are expecting a baby), Starstruck uses its larger canvas to explore more of the challenges that a couple in this situation would face after happily ever after. And, honestly, a lot of challenges that arise well before their happily ever after. Cinema employee and part-time nanny Jessie (Matafeo) and action star Tom (Nikesh Patel) randomly meet in a club on New Year’s Eve, then hook up at his place. Things seem to be going well until she finds women’s jewelry in his nightstand. Googling him turns up recent gossip stories about him out with a woman identified as his girlfriend — a hazard of dating as a celebrity! This is information you have to dig much harder for with a non-famous person, if evidence of it exists online at all! So Jessie ghosts him. But the two continue encountering each other over the course of a year, and while their finally making an affirmative choice toward couplehood is the end of the first season, it’s not the end of their love story.
“Maybe I don’t want to be adding to that pressure and expectation of romantic love being the be all and end all,” Matafeo told Segalov. “Maybe I want to encourage younger women like myself to aspire to other things.” And here’s the first point where I would pause to tell Matafeo she has nothing to atone for: Starstruck never makes its central relationship look easy; most of the time, it’s not even aspirational. Granted, some of Tom and Jessie’s issues are related to his very strange job. Almost immediately, Jessie is papped coming out of Tom’s place (and said paps rudely assume she’s his cleaner); down the line, his agent (a perfectly deployed Minnie Driver) “jokes” that she would pay Jessie to stay away from Tom. But while the fame-o + normie setup is an obviously grabby premise, most of the difficulties Tom and Jessie encounter could happen to anyone, starting with the nightstand earrings. Any moderately serious romantic relationship requires trust, vulnerability, patience, and above all, the will to make it work. These are hard to establish with a brand-new person no matter what other conditions surround you, and when both partners are as proud and stubborn as Tom and Jessie are, the odds can be long. So the notion that Starstruck might ruin a generation of millennial women with romantic illusions is, in my opinion, not something Matafeo should worry about.
Knowing how to construct a TV show, distinct from a movie concept unnecessarily protracted in TV form, doesn’t seem to be a source of stress for Matafeo — which is good. Unlike Still Up, another recent TV romcom set in London, Starstruck’s story and its format are, no pun intended, perfectly wedded to one another. While Tom and Jessie’s relationship is clearly driving the plot overall, each episode is its own brief slice of their lives — months apart, in the first season. They move toward and away from each other based on their own courage, or insecurity, or false judgments, because this couple is not fated; probably no couple is.
Also unlike Still Up, the serial TV format allows Matafeo and her co-writers, Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson, to make its protagonists’ world feel full. Other couples are living out their own love stories because they are fully realized characters, not just mirrors for the leads. Kate (Emma Sidi) and Ian (Al Roberts), who met the same night Tom and Jessie did, have an easier time because a bossy pragmatist and a soft-hearted romantic are actually a complementary pair; Steve (Sampson) and Sarah (Lola-Rose Maxwell) work because he’s devoted to her and she’s probably too lazy to find someone new. As far as the show is concerned, all of these examples of monogamous relationships are perfectly valid. Unlike Still Up, we aren’t presented with one obvious true pairing plus an obstacle guy; and unlike Matafeo’s worst fears about romcoms, nothing is being idealized.
In the Guardian interview, Matafeo admits that she didn’t know if she could do a third season of Starstruck: “I couldn’t see what the story would be.” Given her anxieties about her possible complicity in harming women by perpetuating false expectations in relationships, Season Three directly confronts the romcom trope of The One. Jessie has a good thing with Tom, when it’s good: yelling at him not to try to win at kissing, roasting him about being an actor before she knows he’s enormously successful, showing off her knowledge of the dreamboat-packed movie The Outsiders at a pub quiz (“I used to be a virgin”). But in Season Three, Tom and Jessie have to deal with all the details that make their relationship difficult, and since it’s in the trailer, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that they break up, Jessie meets someone else and that’s the story — portraying that, for Jessie, finding The One is a false goal.
Starstruck started ambitiously by taking us past where most romcoms end, and has only continued going further. I understand why Matafeo might worry about adding to the canon of romcoms when so many of them have been retrograde and phony, but I hope her guilt dissipates as she gets more distance from Starstruck, and that she can feel as proud of it as she should.