'Starstruck' Season 2 Resets the Bar for Rom-Com TV - Rolling Stone
×
×
Home TV & Movies TV & Movies Features

‘Starstruck’ Returns With a Vengeance — and Resets the Bar for Rom-Com TV

A (spoiler-filled) breakdown on how the British TV show gave us one of the funniest scenes of the year

A scene from the television show StarstruckA scene from the television show Starstruck

Pete Dadds/HBO

This post contains spoilers for the second season of Starstruck, which is streaming in its entirety on HBO Max, and we highly recommend you watch it before we ruin an utterly hysterical punchline.

The clubhouse leader for the funniest TV scene of 2022 does not start out seeming as if it is going to be funny at all. This is crucial to what makes it work.

It is the beginning of the fourth episode of the second season of Starstruck, the exceedingly charming British romantic comedy co-created by and starring Rose Matafeo as Jessie, a directionless New Zealander living in London who stumbles into a relationship with action movie star Tom (Nikesh Patel). The scene in question opens with Jessie reflected in her bathroom mirror as her phone timer goes off. The shot switches to Jessie sitting on the toilet as she holds up a home pregnancy test to study the result. It is clearly not what she wants, and she begins crying. Well, less “crying” than “full-throated, agonized sobbing and wailing.” It is obvious in this moment that Jessie has tested positive, and is grappling with the biggest stupid mistake in a lifetime filled with thousands of tiny stupid mistakes. Though Matafeo primarily does off-kilter comedy on this show — a later episode finds Jessie and Tom fighting because she doesn’t like him describing her as “kooky” — this is utterly raw and compelling dramatic acting from her, and suggests a serious, Fleabag-esque pivot for Starstruck.

Instead, the scene itself pivots right back to what the show is best known for doing. Jessie stands up, tries to compose herself, and picks up the pregnancy test box to confirm that she interpreted the result correctly. As her breathing calms down, her expression changes from pain to confusion. She looks at the box. She looks at the test. The box. The test. Back and forth again and again, periodically letting out a pleasantly surprised “Oh!” until it becomes abundantly, hilariously obvious that — as she so often does — she got things entirely wrong, and is not pregnant. Suddenly, it is as if the whole traumatic ordeal never happened to her. She calls out “Jordan!,” jump shoots the test into the wastebasket, and exits the bathroom without a care in the world.

It is an absolutely brilliant comic sketch, twice subverting the audience’s expectations in service of that explosive payoff. It is also something I would never show to someone outside the context of that episode, this season, or Starstruck in general. It is only as funny as it is because of that context, and what it tells us about Jessie. In other words, it is television. Not an 80-second scene in the middle of a three-hour movie. Not a one-act play. Not a hot dog or a sandwich. Television. Imagine that.

Jessie (Rose Matafeo) takes a pregnancy test in 'Starstruck.'

Jessie (Rose Matafeo) takes a pregnancy test in ‘Starstruck.’

HBO Max

Let’s pull back a bit to take a wider view than the one offered by that bathroom mirror. Jessie and Tom spend most of the first season hooking up and then breaking up. There is an unmistakable attraction between them, but they are fundamentally mismatched on almost every other level. She is boisterous; he is reserved. She is impulsive; he is disciplined. (Near the end of the episode with the pregnancy test scene, he resists the overwhelming urge to have dressing on his Caesar salad because he has to look good for a film shoot the next day.) She is frequently wrong with absolute conviction; he’s sensible but also wracked with self-doubt. And on a more practical level, she is a nobody, and he is a celebrity. (At a New Year’s Eve party in this season’s third episode, one of Tom’s movie friends quickly excuses himself from a conversation with Jessie once he realizes that she works at a cinema rather than working in cinema.) There are various professional complications and romantic misunderstandings, and eventually Jessie decides that she has failed at everything she has tried in England, and that it’s time to give up and move back to New Zealand. But when Tom offers to accompany her on the bus ride to the airport, Jessie realizes that she wants to stay and give things another shot with him.

Season Two picks up exactly where the previous finale left off, on that homage to the final shot of The Graduate, with Tom and Jessie in the back of the bus, not sure what to do after their alleged happily ever after. Jessie inevitably begins to panic, realizing that she has wasted the money her parents spent to buy her a plane ticket home, and that she has no job and no real reason for still being in England other than this guy with whom she can’t stop arguing. The New Year’s Eve episode comes right before the one with the pregnancy test, and it features multiple encounters with members of Tom’s inner circle — including his suspicious agent Cath (Minnie Driver) and obnoxious brother Vinay (Parth Thakerar) — that leaves Jessie wondering how much longer the relationship can last. And throughout both seasons to this point, we are reminded again and again that Jessie has the attention span of a flea and the maturity of a middle schooler (maybe).

So by the time the show gets to its heroine sitting on the toilet, we are primed to understand just what a terrible development it would be for Jessie to have an unplanned pregnancy at this moment in her life. Starstruck has previously taken her emotional life just seriously enough that it feels entirely possible that the pregnancy is happening. For a few seconds there, it seems as if things are at minimum going to become quite messy — Tom insisting on doing the right thing, Cath assuming this is part of Jessie’s nefarious plan to trap her famous boyfriend, Jessie repeatedly proving herself to be unfit for impending motherhood — if not the series getting outright somber for a while. The context has been carefully and clearly established, and Matafeo plays Jessie’s pained tears with a conviction and force that belies her comedy resume. As Jessie continues to moan, the notion of the show dealing with a pregnancy becomes not just possible, but probable.

Which is of course why the realization that Jessie just misunderstood the instructions plays as hilariously as it does. We have to believe that this could really be happening, and we also have to understand how bad this would be for Jessie, so that when we discover what has actually happened, there is at least as much relief as there is amusement at seeing how she has once again gotten things ass-backwards. Of course Jessie would have misread the box, because that’s just how big of a fool she can be so much of the time.

And then, like Jessie sauntering out of the bathroom without a care in the world, Starstruck forgets that the pregnancy scare ever happened. She mentions it to neither Tom nor her flatmate Kate (Emma Sidi). The rest of that episode and the one that follow it involves Jessie letting herself get sucked back into the orbit of her terrible ex-boyfriend Ben (Edward Easton), leading to yet another breakup with Tom, and then another dramatic reconciliation in the finale — this time with the two of them waist-deep in a duck pond after yet another decision that Jessie admits she did not think through.

But that’s okay. After all, even if Jessie forgets that the pregnancy scare happened, the audience remembers. (How could we forget, after how expertly the scene manipulates our emotions?) And that knowledge of how precarious her entire life is hangs over every stupid decision she makes through the rest of the season. And even if it didn’t, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a perfect joke set up with a level of detail and patience that would be utterly foreign to the character at the center of it, but not to the woman writing and performing it.

Good luck topping that, the rest of 2022 television. It’s a truly Jordan-esque shot Starstruck just made there.

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.