What happens after you blow up your entire life to be with the person you love? The second season of “Starstruck” explores the question that rom-coms generally leave unanswered after their happy endings, wisely acknowledging that a big romantic gesture doesn’t erase all the obstacles present between two people getting — and staying — together. On its surface, the British import on HBO Max seems like a standard wish-fulfillment fantasy à la “Notting Hill”: a “normie” finds unlikely romance with a star. However, with its outsized doses of wit and warmth, “Starstruck” delights above and beyond that basic premise, charming the pants off the audience and seducing them into watching six straight episodes in their pajamas.
The second season is nearly as strong as the just-about-perfect first go-round, offering a half-dozen more bingeable episodes (though lacking a moment as instantly iconic as Jessie’s post-hook-up dance to “Return of the Mack”). With its breezy running time of 22-ish minutes, the season coincidentally totals about as long as a movie rom-com, but “Starstruck” doesn’t feel like someone simply hacked a film script into sixths. The comedy continues to take advantage of the episodic nature of television, dipping in and out of the on-again, off-again romance of aimless Jessie (creator and co-writer Rose Matafeo) and famous actor Tom (Nikesh Patel), hitting the highlights of holidays and pivotal moments in their lives over the course of a year.
In the season one finale, Jessie decided to stay with Tom in London, rather than fly home to her native New Zealand for good. After the second season premiere (aptly titled “Stay”) replays their swoon-inducing kiss at the back of a bus, it quickly cuts to Jessie freaking out in a panic over the enormity of her decision (a perfectly reasonable reaction). Jessie’s continued presence in London should make things easier in her relationship with Tom, but, as her MVP BFF Kate (Emma Sidi) tells her, Jessie is a “messy bitch.” Her prickliness adds internal challenges to the exterior culture clash between Tom’s world and Jessie’s, as she struggles with making a commitment. It would be easy for “Starstruck” to idolize Tom, but the series treats him as a whole, flawed person despite his celebrity status. The character is an actor who never seems to know the right thing to say if it’s not scripted — and sometimes not even then, given the frequent digs at many of his career choices by those around him. But what makes “Starstruck” so watchable is how these two people are still so loveable and likable amidst their believable behavior and responses that might occasionally make you yell at the screen in frustrated empathy.
However, it’s not just the romance between Jessie and Tom that makes the series a must-watch for rom-com fans. Matafeo and co-writers Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson never forget the “com” part of rom-com, with enough jokes in each episode that I felt like I needed to apologize to my neighbors for the shrieks of laughter. Matafeo has such a fast delivery that it’s no surprise when Jessie claims “His Girl Friday” as her favorite film; she sprints through dialogue with an ease that would make Rosalind Russell proud.
Jessie is a big film nerd, and “Starstruck”’s style evinces a team who is equally enamored of the movies. Anamorphic lenses give the show a cinematic look, with a vibrancy rooted in Jessie’s own colorful aesthetic. There’s care and attention paid to the show’s production design, from Jessie’s brightly decorated flat to Tom’s more modern, subdued place. London has rarely seemed this sunny on screen, and it all just adds to the show’s already immense charm.
“Starstruck” fills the absence left by fellow British comedies “Fleabag” and “Catastrophe,” two shows that were unafraid of presenting prickly female protagonists and putting them in awkward situations — often of their own making. But “Starstruck” is a much sweeter experience than its thornier predecessors, balancing Jessie’s mistakes and foibles with the adorable chemistry she shares with Tom. With its second season, “Starstruck” doesn’t just continue enchanting the audience with its hilarious love story: it confirms its emotional intelligence, despite its heroine’s relatable stupidity about love. [A-]