Rose Matafeo’s rom-com is fresh, original and witty

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Like many young women before her, Jessie, slightly inebriated and decked out in shiny threads, hooks up with a hot guy on New Year’s Eve.

Waking up the next morning in his surprisingly nice and spacious London apartment, Jessie (Rose Matafeo) stumbles around and spots something strange – a movie poster half hidden under bubble wrap through which the face of her boink buddy is peeking out.

Tom (Nikesh Patel), it turns out, is an actor. Not just a jobbing actor who turned in a notable performance as Polonius in a community production of Hamlet. Tom is famous. Like mega-famous. The kind of famous that gets swarmed for selfies outside the pub.

And Jessie is really not. She’s “a little rat nobody” who works in a cinema and has a part-time nannying job, another 20-something New Zealander in London, unfocused and treading water.

So, how does a normie navigate the world of celebrity?

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Starstruck may have a familiar premise – it’s a gender-reversed Notting Hill for the 21st century – but Kiwi comedian Rose Matafeo has infused the six-part rom-com she created, co-wrote and stars in with a witty sense of humour and a freshness, as well as a clear, deep love for the genre.

Matafeo, 29, started her career in stand-up and was a regular on the festival circuit, even going on to win Best Show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. That stand-up background serves her and co-writer Alice Snedden really well – Starstruck is super well-paced with a rhythm that never slackens.

Even though you could easily binge all six episodes in the time it takes to watch a movie, the series is also structured so you don’t have to.

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The writing is sharp and smart, with a cast of supporting characters including Jessie’s roommate Kate (Emma Sidi) and workmate Joe (Joe Barnes) while the always fabulous Minnie Driver shows up in one episode as Tom’s bread-fearing agent.

The chemistry between every character is off-the-charts.

If there’s one quibble it’s that Tom is much less rounded out as a character by virtue of the fact that Starstruck is Jessie’s story, so the perspective that comes through is always hers – and he disappears from her life from time-to-time, off filming in Prague or whatever it is famous people do.

Jessie is a relatable, easy-to-root-for hero, sex positive (a “Return of the Mack” just-got-laid celebration dance is particularly winsome), unapologetically young and mainly carefree. She could be you or she could be your best friend.

There is never a moment when you don’t have a strong sense of who she is.

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Even when Jessie’s being a brat, there’s such an openness in Matafeo’s performance you can’t help but be on Jessie’s side. Matafeo has expanded into acting in the past few years and her winning screen presence – the charisma, the vulnerability – was already evident in 2020 Kiwi rom-com Baby Done.

Casting Patel as Tom is not only interesting in that he’s a British actor of South Asian heritage who has oodles of charm and talent, but he’s already played around in this genre sandbox in the Four Weddings and A Funeral reimagined miniseries.

With Matafeo’s half-Samoan background, the two romantic leads in Starstruck are from diverse backgrounds, and not even commented on, which is just another plus in a genre that so easily falls into cookie cutter instincts on every level.

Starstruck is in many was a classic rom-com with the ups and downs, missed moments and misunderstandings of a burgeoning courtship. But even with its roots anchored in the soil of what came before, it still feels very original – and completely essential.

Starstruck airs on ABC on Wednesdays from June 23 at 9pm, while all episodes will be available on iview from June 23

Share your TV and movies obsessions | @wenleima


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