This post contains light spoilers for Starstruck.
New Year’s Eve is a date that some of the best romantic comedies have spent a lot of time depicting, from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle to The Apartment. While it doesn't rank as highly, there’s even an entire star-packed movie dedicated to this particular date and Gary Marshall’s 2011 New Year's Eve ode to a night of high expectations in the second installment in the rom-com trilogy of sorts (Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day complete the set). Waving goodbye to the old year can be cathartic, but this is also an occasion dripping in FOMO and the pressure of finding someone to kiss at midnight.
It is no surprise this annual event takes center stage in so many movies dedicated to meet-cutes, and NYE parties are often a mix of elation and misery depending on what point in the story the celebration takes place. New television comedy Starstruck kicks off with a reluctant Jessie (creator Rose Matafeo) going out to celebrate this occasion with her roommate Kate (Emma Sidi) at a London nightclub and sets the ball rolling (not dropping) with a girl-meets-boy dynamic. The very welcome renewal news was announced on the day all six-episode of the first season debuted on HBO Max (it has already aired on BBC3), and I am going to explain why this show should be on your June watch list.
Instead of the classic will-they-won’t-they framework favored by TV sitcoms, Jessie hooks up with Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel) in the first episode, and the formula is more reminiscent of a classic romantic comedy journey. This genre has been proclaimed dead and reborn multiple times over the last decade and if you search “rom-com is dead” you will be hit with an onslaught of articles proclaiming “The Rom-Com is Dead. Long Live the Rom-Com” or “The Romantic Comedy is Not Dead — It’s Just Not the Same as You Remember.” When streaming entered the TV and movie game, the sheer volume of options opened up different kinds of stories being told and this includes various interpretations of love stories that are also funny.
Even before streaming upped demand, the dating TV comedy narrative on recent shows like New Girl and The Mindy Project took a lot of their cues and references from classics like When Harry Met Sally. Both had an "opposites attract" will-they-won’t-they central pairing that struggled when they shifted into coupledom. This spoke to the issues of sustaining these stories within the network TV 20-plus episode season format. Now, orders tend to be anything between 6 and 13 episodes, which helps keep the storylines fresh and the tension bubbling. This summer is awash with various 30-minute romance-driven series that stretch from laugh-out-loud to simmering dramedies (or sadcoms), which include Hacks, We Are Lady Parts, Betty, Feel Good, Love, Victor, and This Way Up.
Starstruck is a must-see offering from HBO Max that takes the Notting Hill celebrity/civilian — the latter is how scene-stealer Minnie Driver refers to the non-famous — dynamic and reverses it. Instead of a bookshop owner played by Hugh Grant during his peak bumbling floppy hair era, Rose Matafeo is the somewhat listless 28-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand living in London. Working two jobs (as a nanny and at a movie theater), Jessie isn’t fretting too much about her future, and there is an element of going with the flow. Nikesh Patel is the Julia Roberts of this story and while his every move isn’t documented by paparazzi they are still a fixture, along with fans asking for selfies during awkward moments. And for another Richard Curtis movie connection, you might recognize Patel from Hulu’s 2019 miniseries adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Thanks to social media, a lot has changed with how accessible (or at least the illusion of accessibility) celebrities are since Notting Hill’s release in 1999; a quick Google or Instagram search is very revealing. Despite her movie theatre job, Jessie has no idea who Tom is when she first runs into him in the men’s bathroom on NYE. The drinks she has consumed likely adds to this lack of recognition, but she is not too drunk to know that using the empty men’s room rather than waiting in a long line is a great hack. It isn’t until after they have had sex that she discovers what he does for a living. “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me,” Jessie exclaims after he confirms his famous actor status and the quickfire banter is immediate from the off. Will this one-night stand spin into something more?
What is a romantic comedy without obstacles, misunderstandings, and the delicate balance of coming together and falling apart? It is not a romantic comedy. Starstruck is brimming with these ingredients, along with a fabulous ensemble — Jessie’s excitable roommate Kate is a standout — and manages to feel fresh in this depiction of modern romance. The chemistry between Matafeo and Patel is dynamite from the initial meet-cute and the power dynamic is not set in stone. Sure, Tom is a world-famous movie star who regularly appears on gossip sites tracking his dating moves, but he is not without insecurities and relationship uncertainties. Writers Matafeo and Alice Snedden pepper the script with relatable early dating dilemmas that arise whether you are starring in a forthcoming blockbuster or serve popcorn at the theatre — having been a cinema employee it is eerie how accurate some of the workplace scenes are.
The first season depicts a calendar year in London — also ticking several romantic comedy boxes — and effectively gives Jessie space to grow both within the space of Tom and outside of this fraught dating set-up. Not only is this show incredibly funny, but costume designer Rosalind Marshall has delivered some memorable looks from the multicolor sequin Biba dress Jessie wears on New Year’s Eve to her casual jeans to a murder mystery party ensemble inspired by Clue. When you quickly run out of episodes (it is hard not to binge it in one sitting), Matafeo’s 2018 special Horn Dog is available to watch on HBO Max. There is no breaking up with Starstruck, and romantic comedy is alive and well.
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