Love is messy and complicated: Thoughts on Starstruck

(image courtesy IMP Awards)

Unless you’re heart is made of concrete and you sold you soul to a devil of your choosing at some poorly-chosen time in the past, there’s a pretty good chance you really love, love.

You know, romantic love with all its starry-eyed moments, roses and chocolate and trigger-happy arrow-shooting ancient Roman of love Cupid, the catalyst for a thousand slightly-sickening greeting cards, Valentine’s Day GIFs and romantic comedies without number, and often, reason.

There’s an endless market out there for TV show about people falling delightfully and irrevocably in love and so it stands to reason that gifted New Zealand comedian and actor Rose Matafeo would choose to make a six-episode series about falling head over heels with someone.

Starstruck is, however, not your standard, straight of the box, romantic comedy which makes it a very welcome thing indeed.

Even for those of us with a well-documented addiction to rom-coms, who love the meet-cutes, the getting-to-know-you montages and the inevitable race through crowded city streets to an airport/train station/Uber driver’s home (kidding; that hasn’t happened but surely just a matter of time?), it can all begin to feel a bit been-there, done-that.

Especially when the vast majority of rom-coms seem content to tick the expected boxes and nothing more.

The sweet, delightful, liberating joy of Starstruck it that it recognises, as did a certain playwright of some standing a few centuries, that “The course of true love never did run smooth” and that perhaps it’s a lot more satisfying narratively when the TV show we’re watching reflects that.

It also knowingly understands that a flawed protagonist makes the whole process of falling in love, if that is in fact what happens, and honestly it’s not a given throughout much of this engaging series’ run, a whole more accessible interesting simply because there’s almost no one out there who is as perfect as your archetypal rom-com hero or heroine.

We all like to think we are flawless and deserving equally as unblemished but the confronting fact of the matter is that we are a little or a lot like Jessie (Rose Matafeo), who holds down two less than satisfying, poorly paid jobs as a nanny and a cinema attendant, struggling to make rent as a result (something her bestie and housemate, Kate, played by Emma Sidi, lets slide far more than is good for her bank balance) and who doesn’t recognise love true love when it comes a-calling.

Which actually is kind of fair enough since the man who captures her heart/doesn’t capture her heart/not enough Rose knows for sure, is hugely famous British actor Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel) who is a whole lot more grounded than his starry-eyed public persona would have you believe.

After a suitably rom-comy meet-cute one New Year’s Eve in a men’s toilet at a swanky club, followed by festively inebriated sex, Rose finds herself unsure of what she wants, of what Tom wants (though to be fair he makes his intentions clear pretty quickly) and where this one night stand might actually lead.

It’s the perfect set-up for a rom-com with its feet firmly on the ground and its heart looking up in hopeful anticipation, and Matefeo, who wrote the BBC/HBO Max series with Alice Snedden, is absolutely on point as a woman who has spent her life holding her cards close to her chest, who is enjoying living in the UK but misses home back in New Zealand and yet isn’t sure exactly what or where her next step should be.

Starstruck works precisely its narrative happily skips a hopeful, promising step forward because throwing itself a good four hundred steps or so.

Forget an uninterrupted fairytale rush to the romantic finish line – that’s for the hopelessly love consumed romantic comedies that thinks everyone works in a glitzy high end industry, resides in a New York brownstone and dines in a impossibly chic, fun cafes for every meal.

Not everyone does – surprise! surprise! – and Starstruck gets that, and its happy to let its protagonist lives in a cosy but decidedly unchic apartment, work at deadend jobs and struggle with her friendships and possible relationships because that is, for better or worse, what real people do.

They don’t always get it right, even when the answer is obvious and staring them in the face, and while it is patently clear at times that Tom likes her (though he has his fair share of missteps too), it’s also perfectly understandable that Rose either misses these cues or is entirely what to do with the ones she does see because people often stumble past and over the most neon-lit of things.

It’s what we do as a species and Rose is the embodiment of that dynamic to the ultimate benefit of this heartfelt comedy which deftly balances some movingly emotional moments with some very silly goings-on.

The key to this adept balancing of tone and narrative shift is Matafeo who segues from serious to silly, from competent to clearly not, without once skipping a beat, mirroring the fact that life very rarely comes together in neat, tidy ways.

It would be lovely if it did, and frankly rom-coms hold great appeal because they take something messy and contradictory and make it gorgeously, montage-rich wonderful.

Who wouldn’t find appeal in that?

But Starstruck, while delivering a beautifully understated though hardly surprising payoff, doesn’t feel beholding to keep things pretty as a picket fence and has a great deal of fun with the messy bits between the meet-cute and the getting together (if that in fact ever happens; it’s not always a given) thanks to a lovably flawed and quick-witted protagonist with some killer lines, a Prince Charming who needs saving possibly more than the object of his affection, and a consummately pleasing storyline that gives us a rose-coloured ending but with a lot of reassuring unsure humanity thrown for good measure.

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