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The third season of Starstruck isn’t a rom-com anymore

In its final episodes, the show becomes a case study in the pleasures and perils of the TV romantic comedy.

A man and a woman standing on a grand balcony lit with arches of fairy lights.
Rose Matafeo and Nikesh Patel as Jessie and Tom on Starstruck.
Mark Johnson/Max
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The third and final season of Starstruck, Rose Matefeo’s fizzy HBO rom-com, is different from the other two. It’s darker and sadder and messier. It has the only ending it could possibly have, and yet I found it deeply unsatisfying.

When the first season of Starstruck reached the US from the UK in 2021, it was like a straightforward bolt of joy, with an ingeniously simple premise: What if the plot of Notting Hill happened to real people? Here, the central real person is Matefeo’s Jessie, an aimless 20-something working in a movie theater. (Matefeo is both showrunner and star.) She meets a handsome stranger at a bar, has a drunken one-night stand with him, and wakes up the next morning to find that he’s a movie star.

Jessie and affable movie star Tom (Nikesh Patel) spend the next few seasons circling around each other, trying to figure out how to deal with their undeniable and growing connection. Will they fall in love? Of course; that’s the plot of the Notting Hill trope. Will they make it work? That’s where it gets tricky. By the end, the whole thing has turned into a case study of the pleasures and perils of moving the romantic comedy from film to television.

Spoilers for the third season of Starstruck follow.

When the mid-budget movie died in the 2010s, it threatened to take the romantic comedy with it. Instead, romantic comedies moved to television.

Television has always thrived off a will-they-won’t-they, from the screwball (Sam and Diane) to the soap operatic (Luke and Laura). Traditionally, though, TV romances are one part of a larger ensemble story: They drive plot, but they are not the heart of the story. Friends wasn’t called The Ross and Rachel Show for a reason.

In the 2010s, though, the kind of romantic comedies we used to see in theaters started to appear on televisions. There were shows explicitly centered on love stories, not on their ensembles, like You’re the Worst and Lovesick. There were shows built around playing with and deconstructing romantic comedy tropes, like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin and The Mindy Project. You couldn’t go to the movies and see the equivalent of You’ve Got Mail on the big screen, but you could watch Chris Messina charm Mindy Kaling with a little dance on The Mindy Project, and it sort of felt like the same thing.

There were some trade-offs in moving the genre from the big screen to the small. Romantic comedies had to get smaller, but they could also get more detailed.

Rom-coms used to be powered by the superhuman charisma of the movie star. They were about basking in the warm glow of Julia Roberts’s smile and Hugh Grant’s yearning gaze, projected larger than life and softly glowing above our heads. When Roberts and Grant acted out Notting Hill in 1999, they didn’t have to explain why Grant’s everyman was able to get Roberts’s superstar actress to fall for him with a single tentative kiss. Their presences were so huge that we could be swept away by the emotion of the moment, rather than worrying about little character details.

Television can’t blow up its stars like movies can, but it does send them into our living rooms week after week after week. That means we experience TV stars more intimately than we do movie stars. Movie stars are gods, but TV stars are humans whose every thought we know.

Television rom-coms, in turn, are more human-scaled than movie rom-coms, with smaller screens and longer runtimes. They make us care about their love stories not by the sheer overwhelming power of their size and charm, but by delving deeply into the human foibles and neuroses of the characters who somehow find a way to love each other anyway.

On Starstruck, the central problem of the first season is the one that Notting Hill, with its everyman played by a movie star, never had to face for real: It’s very, very hard to be a regular human being next to a movie star.

“When people see us together, it’s like one of those weird animal friendship shows where you see a Labrador and a hedgehog who are friends,” a humiliated Jessie tells Tom after they’re spotted flirting at a film premiere.

“People don’t think that,” Tom assures her.

“Obviously you would say that,” Jessie returns. “You’re the fucking Labrador!”

The jolt that comes from saying this unspoken and awful truth is part of what gives the first season of Starstruck its power. The trope of a civilian dating a movie star is such an over-the-top fantasy, but the people on this show are so well-observed, such smartly written human beings. You almost don’t believe that such real-feeling people are going to live out such a silly trope. The magic of the show is that it makes you root for them to do it anyway.

And they do, over and over again. The first season ends with a lovely, understated take on the classic airport chase scene trope: Jessie, deciding not to fly home to New Zealand but to stay in London with Tom, fails to get off the bus at the stop for the airport, and Tom leans over and kisses her. In the second season, the pair split up after Jessie’s insecurities push Tom away, but in the season finale she makes a rain-soaked declaration of love to Tom and the camera swirls around them as, once again, they kiss.

The third season is where the trope falls apart. In the first five minutes of the premiere, Starstruck efficiently walks us through the entirety of Jessie and Tom’s romantic relationship in a single, dispassionate montage. They move in together. They flirt and cuddle. Tom flies off to location shoots and Jessie stays home looking bored and lonely. She stays home again, looking more lonely. Their flirty banter starts to become repetitive. They split up. Next time we see either one of them, it’s two years later, and Tom’s engaged to another woman.

The whole thing functions as a kind of reverse of the famous montage of Notting Hill that shows a year going by in Hugh Grant’s life without Julia Roberts. There, part of the idea is that we only need to see glimpses of that year, because Hugh Grant stays static as life moves on all around him, stuck emotionally in one place without his love. In Starstruck, the montage suggests a different idea: The relationship doesn’t really matter because what we need to know about these people is what we saw of them when they were coming together and what we’ll see of them now when they separate.

This is Starstruck tackling another of the formal differences between rom-coms on film and rom-coms on TV. In movies, the romantic comedy can end on the big kiss, when the protagonists are finally reunited and all their problems are solved. They capture a moment in time, a breath, the split second when love has conquered all, before all the problems start up again.

TV shows, however, can only drag out the lead-up for so long. Eventually, they have to show us what happens after the kiss.

By and large, the TV shows that successfully keep their central relationship intact after the big kiss are ensemble shows that don’t rely solely on the love story for narrative tension. Sitcoms like Schitt’s Creek and Parks and Recreation had big, beloved love stories, but because their genres were respectively family sitcom and workplace sitcom, they were able to keep generating story after their central couples got together and stayed together. True romantic comedies, however, tend to have a harder time of it on TV. On The Mindy Project, Danny left the show not long after he and Mindy had a baby together.

Probably the TV rom-com that was most successful at dealing with the problem of the post-kiss period was Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a show that was as much a creeping antihero horror show as it was a romantic comedy. On Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, every time Rebecca got close to another boyfriend, we knew it was only a matter of time before her self-destructive influences kicked in and she began plotting and scheming and stalking again. Part of the project of the show was for Rebecca to learn to free herself from the romantic comedy that was constantly running in her head, and for her to find a way to love herself enough to chase something she wanted even more than she wanted a boyfriend: an avocation that could give her life meaning.

Starstruck’s third season comes to a similar conclusion for Jessie: It tries to make the argument that what Jessie needs is not her fantasy-land Notting Hill love story, but a friendship that will nurture her. It attempts — not altogether successfully — to recenter the heart of the show around Jessie’s relationship with Kate, her best friend and former roommate (played by Emma Sidi, Matefeo’s IRL bestie).

As the season opens, Jessie is discombobulated not by her now long-past breakup with Tom, but because Kate is pregnant and getting married. Both of them fear that their relationship won’t survive the transition because how can someone be the person you tell all your secrets to if they also belong to other people?

Kate tells Jessie’s secrets to her husband; Jessie starts keeping secrets from Kate. “Will you still tell me all your secrets when the baby’s born?” Kate asks, half-asleep, in the tenderest scene of the new season. “Can I tell the baby all your secrets?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, do I?” Jessie whispers sweetly back to her.

As Kate and Jessie argue and stop talking to each other, Jessie continues to circle Tom, but she does so with a kind of exhausted resignation. Both of them are in relationships with likable new characters, and though they keep getting drawn back into each other’s orbits, their love scenes together now play as though they’re too tired of the same old rhythms to feel all that much of anything for each other. That moment on the bus at the end of season one feels lifetimes ago. It’s strange to imagine you ever rooted for them to be together.

In the last moments of the season’s penultimate episode, Tom shows up to surprise Jessie at the maternity ward where Kate’s going into labor, and she just says, “Hi,” and turns around to follow Kate. This, the subtext goes, is the real love story. This is what really matters. Jessie and Kate, best friends fighting and making up again and being there for each other in the big moments. It’s the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend lesson all over again; the guys are not the point.

Which would come off rather more successfully if Starstruck hadn’t just spent the past two seasons telling a story in which the guys very much were the point. Starstruck in its first two seasons is not a deconstruction of the romantic comedy, but a romantic comedy, full stop: a story powered by the giddy pleasures of watching two people fall in love with each other, and sparkling with wit and psychological nuance to boot. It doesn’t warn us, as Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does, that trying to live out a real-life romantic comedy is dangerous and obsessive. It says, Isn’t this real-life romantic comedy fun? Don’t you hope it will work out?

It’s as though Starstruck adapted the Notting Hill formula for television a little too well for its own good, so that everything that made it sparkle at the beginning has locked it into its left turn of an ending. The psychological intimacy of TV means we can see the characters’ neuroses too clearly to believe they’ll get past them. Losing the epic scale of the movie screen means we can see how silly the premise is, and we feel how hard it would be to make it work in real life. Television’s serial structure means we can’t just stop the story at the moments when it looks like it might work.

Starstruck maybe had to end where it did, but it got there messily, without a clear in-universe setup. As sweetly well-observed as the friendship between Jessie and Kate is, the third season doesn’t have the fizzy joy of the first, that sense that Matefeo was a really good writer going to go to town on one of the silliest and self-indulgent romantic tropes in the book, and that she was going to make it work.

We all already know why movie stars and aimless movie theater ushers rarely date. The magic comes from building a world where they can.