he didn’t get on the plane! The second series of Starstruck – the six-part BBC Three drama co-written and starring brilliant New Zealand comic Rose Matafeo – begins moments after the first ended, with Jessie (Matafeo) having decided to don’t fly back to New Zealand for good, and instead stay in London and try with Tom Kapoor (the ever dreamy Nikesh Patel). It’s a beautiful moment – albeit momentarily. “I was going to watch Dunkirk on the plane,” she yells, realizing the importance of what she has done. “And I guess I don’t watch Dunkirk anymore!” Of course, she also left her luggage on the bus to the airport.
If you weren’t one of the many people who watched the first series – it’s been streamed almost five million times on iPlayer, making it BBC Three’s biggest comedy of the last year – a brief summary. Jessie is your archetypal slimy rom-com heroine; “kooky,” Tom tries to call her, signaling a level ten Jessie meltdown. She lives with her best friend, Kate (Emma Sidi) in Hackney, works in a cinema, gets into frequent mischief and spends a lot of time “in a shameful spiral about my life in general”.
At the start of the first series, she has a one-night stand with Tom, whom she learns—when she spots a massive poster of him in her house during a post-coital spy session—is a star of blockbuster level cinema. On leaving, the dads mistake her for his cleaning lady. The first season is a delightful “will-they-won’t-they”: in the second, it’s been determined that they will.
Inevitably, of course, it is not easy. For starters, Jessie must confront all the people she’s sent over-the-top goodbye letters to (can you imagine?) and beg for her movie job. Meanwhile, Tom must appease his agent, an acidic, scene-stealing Minnie Driver, who is unhappy with her relationship with a “civilian”. Not to mention that after all the editing, she didn’t get on the plane! – they have to actually make it work, and everyone knows that old rom-com truism: the idea of something is always much, much easier than the reality.
Jessie is selfish and self-destructive and Tom can be a little snappy, too good, too easy to hurt. His character is having a bit more trouble working this season: insecurities about his acting career, an awkward relationship with his obnoxious older brother. This in turn fuels the tension in her relationship with Jessie, who herself is going through a life without a career, her own family on the other side of the world. And seeing them both (mostly Jessie) making mistakes is compelling. They work like a classic rom-com couple, because you root for them but also for the drama. They are alternately magical and capricious; one minute, laughing at a thesaurus deployed to enhance their phone sex, the next telling her, eyes deep as wells, that it “shouldn’t be so hard to love someone.” It’s also quietly groundbreaking – if not – to watch a romantic comedy in which the woman is the commitment phobe, not the man.
Of course, there’s also the matter of the huge and inevitable culture clash between their two lives, which culminates at a party hosted by Tom. His notebook looks like a list on The Modern House; her friends are fashionable actors – the men in modern slate-gray suits, the women all in red satin and with exposed collarbones – while Jessie’s gang of misfit “civilians” get it a bit wrong. (Kate’s boyfriend Ian – played by Al Roberts – unfortunately decided to debut in a flat cap.) “Everyone at this party is called Ebeneezer or Chlorophyll,” mumbles Jessie; later there is agonizing chatter. “I work in a cinema,” she says to one of Tom’s spells. “Oh, you work in the cinema! “No, I work in a cinema.” The man doesn’t know where to look. Inevitably, Jessie gets lost and she and Tom argue.
The show’s premise is charming, though it’s the writing (by Matafeo and his co-writers Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson) and performances that really make the whole thing sing. Matafeo is endlessly watchable, his timing and delivery are pure chemistry, and Sidi is fantastic. Even the secondary roles work hard. Russell Tovey comes across, memorably, as a driven and difficult director’s asshole; The pilot is a joy; Snedden gets a memorable, deadpan appearance at the party. Special thanks to Lola-Rose Maxwell, who plays the terse Sarah and practically deserves a spinoff.
Starstruck is a gem: warm but never saccharine, a very modern rom-com with bubbly “go on” dialogue. It deploys rom-com tropes: two people from (muffled tone) “different worlds”; a chaotic group of friends watching the relationship closely; an infamous ex looming in the shadows; a dramatic kiss in the rain; even a Love Actually reference (Tom gives Jessie a Joni Mitchell CD for Christmas, presented in a jewelry box; “he f***ed me with Alan Rickman,” she grumbles, delighted). But nothing is ever trivial or obvious – instead, it’s smart, quirky, charming. Don’t call it crazy.
Starstruck is on BBC Three on February 7 at 10 p.m. with all episodes streaming on BBC iPlayer