October 2023

Noted

ABC TV’s ‘Starstruck’

By Abigail Ulman
Scene from ‘Starstruck’
The charming rom-com’s third season delivers more emotional pay-offs as the characters develop in their 30s

The first season of Starstruck had an irresistible romantic-comedy premise: girl meets boy, boy and girl like each other, girl learns that boy is a famous actor. The chemistry between the two charismatic leads – Jessie (played by the show’s creator, Rose Matafeo) and Tom (Nikesh Patel) – was undeniable, and though they tried repeatedly to disentangle themselves, a combination of coincidence and desire kept drawing the two characters back to each other. In true rom-com form, it was clear that they were soulmates fated to be together, if only they could stand each other half the time.

At the end of the first season, we left the pair sitting in the back seat of a bus, having just made the impulsive decision to miss a couple of important plane trips and stay in London, together. It was a happy ending – the golden-hour light beamed in, the music swelled, the couple kissed – like the last scene of The Graduate but without the fading smiles.

When we met Jessie and Tom again in season two, they had just stepped off that bus, and into a future beyond the happy ending. Which turned out to be an episode-long panic attack as Jessie came to terms with her decision to stay, followed by five episodes in which she and Tom tried to transform their banter, attraction, chemistry and care into a proper relationship. There were moments when the two made awkward and tender progress towards intimacy, and there were lots of heated (and, at times, petty) arguments. The season ended with Jessie jumping into a pond and wading towards Tom to tell him she loved him and wanted to seriously commit. Both literally and figuratively, he met her halfway.

At the beginning of the show’s recently released third season, it’s two years later and the characters are no longer together. Jessie, who was 28 in the first season, is now turning 33, and there are subtle changes in her character. She’s still funny and brash, but a little subdued and less cocksure – perhaps the result of the heartbreak she’s endured, or the destabilising feeling of being out of step with her peers. “Just because everyone else is getting engaged and married and moving on to the next stage of their lives, it doesn’t mean that you should feel like a failure,” Jessie’s best friend, Kate – freshly back from her honeymoon and heavily pregnant – reassures her without prompting.

The problem with this new version of Jessie is that the only time she resembles the old Jessie – bright-eyed and electrified – is when she’s spending time with Tom, who’s now engaged to another actor but still harbours feelings for her. The will-they-or-won’t-they question feels more insistent than ever, with higher stakes. The viewer vacillates between wanting Jessie and Tom to capitulate to their intense feelings and magnetic attraction and find a way to be together, and exhaling with relief every time Jessie decides to spend time with Liam, a new love interest who – in the mould of Aidan from Sex and the City – is grounded, practical and warm, and takes her commitment-skittishness in his stride.

While Starstruck began as a slapstick romantic comedy, it has transformed over the seasons into a delayed-adolescence bildungsroman. Or, to put it in astrological terms, we’ve watched Jessie traverse the bumpy years of her Saturn return – gaining self-awareness and learning, often the hard way, to be more careful and generous with friends, and more vulnerable and open in relationships.

All this adulting is slightly less fun to watch than the mess and spontaneity of the earlier seasons, but the emotional pay-off is significant. It turns out it’s as hard to wean rom-com characters off rom-com tropes as it is devoted viewers. In Starstruck, however, Matafeo makes a convincing case for a rom-com that is romantic, hilarious, charming and moving, and just a little less starry-eyed and guided – or hamstrung – by fate.

Abigail Ulman

Abigail Ulman is the author of the short-story collection Hot Little Hands. She is based in Melbourne.

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