Starstruck series three review – Rose Matafeo’s romcom ditches the love story (and is better than ever)

About 90 seconds into the third series of Starstruck, it becomes clear that Rose Matafeo’s rom-sitcom has a major problem. The action picks up precisely where we left off at the end of the second series, namely a snogging sesh in the middle of a big pond, as Matafeo’s Jessie finally gets (back) together with her on-off love interest, film star Tom Kapoor, with whom she had a one-night stand in the show’s first episode. Cue a pacy montage charting the giddy highs, then inescapable lows, of their relationship, before Tom walks out of their shared home for good.

When we rejoin her two years later, Jessie seems largely over it. But Tom’s departure has had an existential impact on the show itself: surely we must now also wave goodbye to the titular conceit – whether the normal girl and the famous guy can ever make it work – too? (Starstruck is essentially a gender-swapped Notting Hill, with a more realistic grasp of London property prices.) Yet the show, initially at least, isn’t quite ready to let go of its central gimmick, which means it spends its third outing raking over the embers of the romance, from genuine attempts to move on with new people to tentative reconnection.

So instead of a will-they-won’t-they, Starstruck becomes a please don’t, please don’t! Not only because Tom and Jessie have given love a shot and found themselves incompatible, but also because it seems increasingly obvious that Nikesh Patel’s character – a down-to-earth but slightly dull actor – is a poor match for the lively, mordant Jessie. Starstruck has morphed into an anti-romcom, and it’s no wonder the genre has never taken off – it isn’t a great feeling when the driving force of a binge-watch is the desperate hope that love is eviscerated once and for all.

The good news is that there is plenty to appreciate here that is completely unrelated to moping movie stars. In fact, the Tom and Jessie storyline has always felt like the most contrived element of Starstruck – maybe because it literally is. Like her standup comedian creator, Jessie is an effortlessly funny, clever and cool New Zealander living in London. She is also a self-aware and hardy variation on the messy millennial woman, dealing in mild emotional chaos, but showing resilience too. Jessie’s second significant other, meanwhile, is her best friend and erstwhile flatmate Kate, a people-pleasing perfectionist played to people-pleasing perfection by Matafeo’s actual close friend and erstwhile flatmate Emma Sidi. Kate’s nerdy husband Ian is played by Sidi’s real-life partner Al Roberts (Sidi and Roberts also happen to be two of Britain’s best comic actors). Two of Jessie’s other friends, Amelia and Steve, are played by fellow Kiwis Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson, both long-time pals of Matafeo who co-write (and, in Snedden’s case, co-direct) the show with her.

Unsurprisingly, the team have managed to create a winning portrait of a friendship circle you can really laugh with, bristling with banter and semi-affectionate sniping. But now that paradise is disintegrating. Jessie is in her early 30s and everyone around her is settling down. Steve and his wife Sarah have a child, with another on the way. Kate is visibly pregnant on her wedding day. It’s the threat of another looming separation – the gulf motherhood may make between Kate and Jessie – that provides the show’s real emotional pull.

This is not a commentary on the pros and cons of having children (although I very much enjoyed Sarah’s smug delight quickly dissolving into an abyss-stare when she is asked if she is happy to be having a second baby), but it is a nod to the fact that this kind of en masse parenthood marks the end of youth, whether Jessie is ready to move on or not. She is never a figure of pity – her fling with the droll Scottish electrician she meets at Kate’s wedding fizzes with promise, even if a Tom-related plotline threatens to throw it off course – but as her friends’ lives change, you can’t help but feel for her. It’s just a shame the show’s emotional crescendo occurs during a wholly improbable depiction of childbirth (I want to know which London hospital allows half a dozen friends to hang out all night on the labour ward).

In the grand scheme of things, that is a minor gripe: by the end of these transitional six episodes, Starstruck has become a better – more interesting, more relatable, more affecting – show, one that no longer revolves around its original premise, but instead deals in distinctly un-gimmicky reflections on life’s trajectory. It would be a treat to follow Jessie and co well into the future, to find out how their friendships survive the labels and limitations that come with having and not having kids. From starstruck to baby-brained, this show has undergone the most satisfying of rebirths.

• Starstruck was on BBC Three (repeated on BBC One on Friday). The whole series is available on iPlayer, and starts on ABC in Australia on 6 September 2023.