Prior to the premiere of Starstruck Season 2, creator and lead actress Rose Matafeo wanted to clarify her thoughts on the growing trope of the chaotic female protagonists. Bringing to mind the explosive popularity of Fleabag‘s titular character and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Rachel Bloom, she told the i newspaper, “There’s a difference between multi-dimensional, well-observed female characters and chaotic ones. And I think so many times those two things are completely conflated.”
With the return of Starstruck, Matafeo’s Jessie, the nuanced portrayal of a quick-witted London transplant finding romance with a bonafide movie star, Tom (Nikesh Patel), chaos is never primed for drama or laughs. The character of Jessie supplies viewers with a millennial that is realistically ambivalent about love, needs to pay rent and has a somewhat incidental group of friends, all of which reveals Matafeo’s insightfulness into what millennial audiences want reflected back to them.
Often, rom-coms end as the couple gets together and presumably lives happily ever after, but Season 2 promises there is more to life than that. This sophomore season allows us to enjoy Jessie and Tom’s relationship after the happy cliffhanger kiss on the back of the bus, a clear homage to “The Graduate.”
Matafeo brings us back to where Jessie and Tom immediately left off, challenging the idea that grand gestures or choices mean an easy entry into coupledom. Jessie and Tom, both anxious over what Jessie’s choice to stay in the UK signifies, spend the day in London’s touristy center, trying not to overthink their newfound status in the first episode.
While financial differences do not exactly break Tom and Jessie, the differences in movie star versus ‘civilian’ (to borrow a term from Season 1) lifestyles become more apparent as they figure out being a couple.
In the rom-com genre, where characters have cutesy jobs like greeting card writer or unmemorable occupations barely related to the plot, Starstruck does not shy away from the socioeconomic differences of Tom and Jessie’s lives. Jessie is neither a hustler, biding time until her big break nor is she particularly underachieving.
Instead, Jessie simply wants to afford rent, a refreshingly straightforward motivation from the character’s millennial actress and creator. Contrary to the chaotic type of protagonist that she noted before, Matafeo treats the career and financial circumstances (which includes offscreen parental assistance) of twenty-eight-year-old Jessie with bracing realness. For what Jessie lacks in money and Tom gains as a consequence of his profession, Jessie remains the confident, decisive one in the relationship—an Austenian tinge, if there were one.
Apart from a party at Tom’s large, very nice apartment and scenes of Tom shooting a new action movie with an annoying director, facts of Tom’s movie-star life did not come into play as often as in Season 1. Possibilities, such as Jessie at another premiere as Tom’s date, are traded in for more universal experiences, such as meeting Tom’s belligerent sibling or a love triangle brought on by Jessie’s ex, Ben.
Jessie and a few of the group find themselves at the funeral service of Ben’s nana in a rather roundabout way of bringing Ben and Jessie into each other’s orbits. The addition of Ben works to add more conflict between Tom and Jessie but his influence over her, including past misdeeds never gets fully explained. The viewer is also made to infer he cheated or strung her along, which would somewhat explain Jessie’s reluctance to fully inhabit all the expectations involved in a committed relationship with Tom.
But the season does not suffer much due to these allusive writing choices—instead, we still see Jessie and Tom in lovely, domestic moments that further challenge Jessie’s relationship avoidance, half-in half-out insecurity lying beneath the character’s zippy wit.
Emma Sidi, who plays Kate, Jessie’s best friend and roommate, steals scenes with the endearing quality of conveying any emotion Kate experiences at a neurotic full throttle, from sweet loyalty to anxious bossiness. Jessie’s random group of London friends also pop up more with one hysterical visual gag involving Steve (Nic Sampson) standing out in Episode 2.
As Tom, Nikesh Patel still offers the perfect mixture of vulnerability and straight man reactiveness to Jessie’s humor. Recalling Patel’s previous work in Hulu’s Four Weddings and a Funeral as another character with an actor background, it is striking how Patel chooses to shade in Tom’s sincerity in comparison. Tom comes across much more shy, self-conscious, and perhaps even lonely in this thespian character, possibly humanizing movie stars everywhere. The latter episodes offer a compelling twist to the typical rom-com couplings, with Tom seeking more openness than Jessie is willing to even recognize.
As a six-episode order from across the pond, Starstruck can be watched like a movie, a trait Matafeo is aware of, that lends the show a satisfying tightness and direction. Subverting the unearned and trite gestures in rom-coms of the past, Matafeo delivers a motivated, in-character and hilarious romantic act in the final episode that pushes back against the dismissal of the genre. Starstruck Season 2 provides millennials a rom-com that delights and reflects reality even while tilting further into the wonderfully fanfiction-esque premise.