It takes a lot of self-control to resist watching (or rewatching) an entire season of “Starstruck” in one sitting. At just six episodes, each under 30 minutes, it’s the ideal length for a languid afternoon. Thanks to creator and star Rose Matafeo’s pitch-perfect precision, every season feels succinctly plotted, with no moment feeling out of place or unnecessary. Part of me feels I shouldn’t be devouring it, instead taking more time to savor each delicious morsel of the show, recognizing the care and attention to detail in every moment.
For the uninitiated, “Starstruck” is a feast for fans of the rom-com. The show continually finds the perfect balance, paying homage to rom-coms — which both Matafeo and her character, Jessie, who fittingly works at a movie theater, love deeply — while also turning the genre’s tropes on their head and making them more realistic. Its first season begins with a “Notting Hill”-esque premise: Jessie has a one-night stand with a vaguely familiar-looking person she met at a bar on New Year’s Eve — only to discover, upon sobering up the next morning, that he is movie star Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel).
Throughout the show, there are nods to modern rom-coms like “When Harry Met Sally” and “Love Actually,” and classic screwball comedies like “His Girl Friday” and “The Philadelphia Story.” At the same time, it cheekily acknowledges the flaws in rom-com tropes, such as Tom telling Jessie in Season 2 that he can’t do an airport chase because he has a bad knee. And the characters’ grand romantic gestures are perfectly imperfect and anxiety-filled, like in the final scene of Season 2, when Jessie declares her love for Tom. Delivered while drenched in pond water and rain, her meandering, impromptu speech ends with her saying: “In short, I love you, I’m sorry, and I wish you all the best.” She then awkwardly (but also endearingly) points at Tom, like a game show host signing off.
In Season 3, which premieres Thursday on Max, the show makes a bold choice. The first episode picks up right where Season 2 left off: Tom and Jessie kissing in the rain. But then, we see the entire course of their relationship — including its dissolution — in under three minutes. It’s a bit of a shock to the system, setting up what might seem like a more bittersweet premise than that of the first two seasons.
Yet “Starstruck” has always been about subverting our expectations by grounding the rom-com in reality and bringing it down to Earth. Yes, there’s the meet-cute and the will-they-won’t-they tension. But the show is much more concerned with more practical and honest questions: What happens after? How do you make a relationship actually work? Season 3 further punctures the rom-com fantasy: What happens when maybe it wasn’t meant to be?
After that montage in the first few minutes, the season then skips forward two years following Tom and Jessie’s breakup. Jessie is at the wedding reception of her best friend Kate (Emma Sidi). Tom is there too, having remained friends with Kate’s husband, Ian (Al Roberts). An awkward reunion ensues, and in subsequent episodes, Jessie and Tom keep running into each other by happenstance, a variation on Season 1. Only this time, the will-they-won’t-they tension is about if they will (or should) get back together. Tom is now in a serious relationship with a fellow actor named Clem (Constance Labbé). Jessie is also attempting to move on, going on a few dates with a perfectly nice electrician named Liam (Lorne MacFadyen), whom she meets at Kate and Ian’s wedding.
There’s a spark (pun intended) there. But watching it, I couldn’t help but think: Liam may be sweet, but he’s no Tom. It takes a show like “Starstruck” to remind me how much rom-coms have wired our brains to wish for the sunniest but often unrealistic outcome. My rom-com brain still wants me to root for Tom and believe he’s right for Jessie.
But throughout their interactions, the show drops hints about why it didn’t work out between them: They wanted different things, and their lives are just fundamentally mismatched. For instance, when Jessie visits Tom backstage at a play he’s starring in, Tom apologizes for the wait. She responds matter-of-factly: “It’s kind of like old times: hanging around in a sad room, waiting for you.”
We’re tempted to want Tom and Jessie to be “endgame,” in rom-com parlance. But real life isn’t that simple and unfettered. Throughout “Starstruck,” Matafeo has always been skillful at finding just the right ways to both honor the great rom-com traditions and recognize that reality is far messier. Even the most hardened cynic in me can’t help but feel that push and pull, wanting to believe in the magic of rom-coms, while acknowledging that societally, we’re wrapped up in that fantasy. It’s hard to rewire our brains. But more honest shows about romance, like “Starstruck,” might help us begin to get there.
Without getting into spoiler territory, this third season feels conclusive, landing at a potential endpoint for the entire show. It feels like an especially complete narrative arc when you watch all three seasons together, as I did, rewatching Seasons 1 and 2 beforehand (which, given their length, you could easily do before starting the new season).
It’s a show I could probably keep watching forever and ever. But in real life, they say, all good things never last — and that’s OK. “Starstruck” has always recognized the limits of the rom-com fantasy. Even the show’s brevity helps keep things honest, and that honesty makes the show deeply satisfying.
Season 3 of “Starstruck” premieres Thursday on Max.