“This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me!” Jessie declares upon realizing that Tom, the man she just slept with, is a movie star. On the one hand, this is Jessie being overly dramatic and narcissistic, as she is prone to do. On the other, her off-kilter way of looking at the world lands on an important truth: Dating a movie star is much more complicated than if Tom was just a random guy she really liked.
This is the central tension of Starstruck, an immensely likable Britcom that landed on HBO Max earlier this month. Think Notting Hill meets a version of Fleabag that’s played almost entirely for laughs. Jessie (Rose Matafeo) is a New Zealander who lives in London with roommate Kate (Emma Sidi), and works half-heartedly at a movie theater concession stand and as a part-time nanny for a wealthy family. Tom (Nikesh Patel) is a rising star who… well, the show isn’t clear on exactly how famous he’s meant to be, since in some scenes he’ll have paparazzi camped outside his apartment, while in many others he’s able to move around London completely anonymously. But he’s enough of a celebrity that his agent Cath (Minnie Driver, hilarious in what’s unfortunately only one scene out of six episodes) warns him he would ruin the life of any civilian he tried to date. Jessie and Tom argue from almost the first moment they meet in a nightclub men’s room on New Year’s Eve, yet they’re unmistakably drawn to each other, even as their respective levels of fame (or lack thereof) keep getting in the way.
The morning after they first hook up, Tom quizzes Jessie about her parents’ names and other pertinent details, and is amused that the best she can think to ask him is about his favorite colors. Matafeo wrote the series with Alice Snedden, and it shares Jessie’s relative lack of interest in Tom’s life. We know that he’s unhappy with the quality of the movies he’s been doing, and that he likes Jessie for reasons he can’t articulate, and that’s about it.
This is one of the dangers of a show where one lead is a co-creator and the other is not, though Patel makes an appealing straight man. And if Starstruck feels imbalanced as a result, Matafeo definitely knows how to write for herself, showcasing a delightfully loose physical and verbal performance. During one of the many periods of the show when things have fallen apart between our main couple, Jessie has a one-night stand with a random guy on a houseboat. She’s so pleased with the uncomplicated sexual experience that she dances through the streets the next morning to Mark Morrison’s “Return of the Mack,” and any lingering doubts about why Tom might be so eager to keep trying with Jessie just melt away.
There are perhaps one or two misunderstandings too many to cause temporary breakups between our heroes, but the six episodes fly by, and HBO Max has already announced another season is in the works. Between Peacock’s We Are Lady Parts, Netflix’s Feel Good, and this series, it’s been an excellent spring for quick-hit British comedies. Dating Tom turns out not to be the worst thing that’s ever happened to Jessie, and watching their story unfold is one of the better ways you can spend a night or two bingeing TV.
All six episodes of Starstruck are available now on HBO Max. I’ve seen the whole thing.