After twelve episodes of tracking the roller-coaster ride of Jessie (Rose Matafeo) and Tom (Nikesh Patel) from drunken New Year’s Eve hookup all the way to the threshold of Something Serious, Season 2 of the HBO Max series gives its main character a unique make-or-break opportunity. With her London friends and a not-quite-ex ex there as a witness, Jessie climbs off a paddleboat and trudges through the water to where Tom is awkwardly passing his afternoon.
After a roundabout declaration of love, she’s ready to walk back to shore, unburdened from having to keep up the facade of someone who’s fine keeping her feelings at a manageable simmer. But before she can even get back to the boat where her roommate Kate (Emma Sidi) is waiting, Tom sloshes after her and the two kiss to the hoots and hollers of (almost) everyone looking on.
As a season-capping moment, it’s an interesting counterpoint to the slow “will they-won’t they” beat that brought the first season to a close. Even though this newest season finishes with a more traditional romantic comedy spectacle — the fountain going off behind them might as well be fireworks — there’s still something honest about both the execution and the path there.
It may not have that lingering shot of the two of them grappling with reality setting in, but Season 2’s ending might be even more in line with “The Graduate” this time around. If Season 1 was still in a kind of honeymoon phase, there have been enough puncture holes in their romantic bubble since. The fountain’s erupting behind them, but they know now that those water droplets could turn into the rain on their parade at any moment.
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Some of Matafeo’s best moments come when Jessie is talking without a net. It’s a stream-of-consciousness that comedies usually save for big climactic meetings, where people are so flustered by the enormity of the situation that they can barely get words out in the right order. One of the graceful touches of “Starstruck” is not just saving that for the end. Jessie is someone who’s constantly figuring things out, to the point where a good portion of the time, you can sense that she doesn’t even know where her own sentences are going to finish.
Which makes the fact that Jessie helps to manufacture this moment oddly natural. Matafeo told IndieWire, “I remember we were writing that whole speech and felt like, ‘Oh my God, this is quite cheesy and heavy,’ and then in the moment actually it wasn’t…She was saying what she means finally, straight up.” For both the people crafting the story — Nic Sampson joined Alice Snedden and Matafeo as Season 2 writers — and Jessie, the potential for rough patches don’t go away, but this ensures that any future episodes have fresh challenges to consider.
Season 2 avoided being a retread of its equally delightful first season by avoiding the need to keep Jessie and Tom together, either in location or relationship status. It gives “Starstruck” space to see each of them as individuals rather than purely a cute pairing. That comes through in this season’s approach to Tom, which includes him as more of a co-equal partner rather than the object of the protagonist’s affection. Watching the scenes at the film shoot when Tom is looking for a reprieve from the stress of the day, you can see what Patel has layered on season over season. He’s adding in more of Jessie’s mix of insecurity and sweetness, smiling through the uneasiness in the same way that Jessie is navigating a new social circle. Much like Tom is trying to meet Jessie on her preferred terms, you buy that he’s picked up some of her personality traits by being around her.
And how best to show that meeting point than having Tom join her in thigh-deep pond water? However on-the-nose that metaphor might be, it’s an apt one considering all the ways that things have to go right before you feel comfortable really sharing a life with someone.
Mark Johnson/HBO Max
Having this public display also underlines another idea running through Season 2: that relationships don’t happen in a vacuum. Yes, dating someone famous comes with certain unexpected hurdles, but all dating is weird. Watching Kate and Ian’s (Al Roberts) relationship evolve in parallel, with all the strange turns and insecurities and decision points, shows that there’s no ideal that “Starstruck” is holding up as an aspirational model. Everyone has their doubts and their self-perceived shortcomings. What matters is how you respond to those realizations.
When Jessie asks Tom, “Why did we break up?” one of the tricks of “Starstruck” is that this show understands that there doesn’t always need to be a reason, or at least a mutually-agreed upon one. Relationships can end just as easily for loving someone too much as too little. Matafeo and Patel are two incredibly charming screen presences, but “Starstruck” doesn’t let the fact that their characters have sweet, playful banter paper over the fact that there are some issues of trust and jealousy lingering underneath. Them meeting in the middle out on the pond comes against that backdrop of mutual understanding.
Among the off-camera contributions making this story feel more lived-in with each passing season, it helps that Segal turns in another season’s worth of one of the most effervescent scores anywhere on TV. It’s the show in microcosm: sparkling and lively with the occasional hint of a sharpened edge. Jessie and Tom have the relationship that dips into its own minor key more often that they might care to admit, but their story is the equivalent of a peppy melody with energy to spare.
Above all, Season 2 is somehow funnier than its predecessor. Even while mulling whether or not to go after her past and future boyfriend, Jessie still has time to yell at the weather (“Why is it raining now? I hate your country!!”). From the pillow talk back-and-forths to flirty voice notes, all the way through every portion of the combined bachelor/bachelorette day that sets up that fountain kiss, there’s usually a laugh of recognition along the way. “Starstruck” doesn’t have to add anything artificial. The kind of love it lays out is an engine all its own.
“Starstruck” Season 2 is now available to stream on HBO Max.