‘Starstruck’ Season 3: A Visionary Plot Twist or Rom-Com Blasphemy?
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‘Starstruck’ Season 3: A Visionary Plot Twist or Rom-Com Blasphemy?

‘Starstruck’ Season 3: A Visionary Plot Twist or Rom-Com Blasphemy?

Editor’s note: This story contains spoilers for the ending of “Starstruck” Season 3.

Time was that in a romantic comedy, the leads always ended up together.

That’s changed over time as audience and narrative priorities shift, and as television dove deeper into the rom-com game along with film, finding ways to unite, separate, and permute every pairing while filling out hours and hours of story. A lot of sitcoms spin that into classic TV romance; Ross and Rachel, Cory and Topanga, Jess and Nick. In recent years, the trend has skewed toward getting a couple together and keeping them together; Jake and Amy, David and Patrick, Janine and Gregory (okay not yet but we’re rooting for them).

And then there is the Secret Third Thing, the rare and difficult move where a show pairs its lead character or characters off with someone who wasn’t the original plan. Sometimes there are outside factors (“Cheers” comes to mind), while other times it’s simply a more desirable story development. It’s the surprise move pulled in “Starstruck” Season 3, which begins with Jessie (Rose Matefeo) and superstar Tom (Nikesh Patel) back together — only to quickly break them up, jump ahead two years, and pick up with Tom engaged and Jessie casually dating Liam (Lorne MacFadyen). The season has an admirable 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but has sown discord among IndieWire’s TV team.

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Below, IndieWire’s Proma Khosla and Ben Travers unpack what did and didn’t work in the six-episode installment.

Proma Khosla: I’ve seen a lot of critics praise this season of “Starstruck,” and I do get it — to an extent. Not putting Jessie and Tom together is a huge risk for a show literally named (so cleverly) for their relationship, it’s definitely complex and realistic, and it was a huge shock.

That said: This season hurt me! We get a bummer summer montage, time jump, and then watch these two move toward either getting back together or at least having an affair only for them to be mature adults. I’m proud of them but ow! The ending wasn’t just bittersweet, but left me feeling empty, and I think there are a few reasons for that.

First: The montage. I love a good montage. I watched too much “Lost” in my formative years to not succumb to an emotive musical mashup of clips that advance the plot and emotionally torment the viewer. But “Starstruck” 301 doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for why Tom and Jessie’s relationship fell apart. I realize that that’s sometimes what happens; people drift apart, communication suffers, goals don’t align. It’s one of those facts of reality that I think really doesn’t translate to fiction, maybe because it hits too close to home and doesn’t pack the necessary narrative punch. I remember Netflix’s “Something Great” doing something similar that fell completely flat for me. We’re supposed to believe this epic romance fell apart because someone was spending too much time at work? That’s a symptom, but it’s not the whole problem.

I’m torn about the time jump. It’s merciful for the viewer to not stew in these characters’ immediate heartbreak, but we also miss out on other necessary points of evolution during the two years that the show skipped. Feels like we glossed over their different stances on parenthood way too quickly, or Jessie’s inevitable spiral over being single over 30 (a rite of passage), or how Tom and Clem (Constance Labbé) met and what makes her so special other than being conspicuously kind, attractive, and successful. To the same end, Liam is perfectly solid and charming, but I would have loved to spend more time watching that relationship evolve instead of Tom sending Jessie the most chaotic texts on Earth for reasons he can’t explain even to himself.

Look, I do think this was a good season, and a series of creative choices that I will definitely remember. But I feel like Tom and Jessie and many viewers left that hospital chapel with a sense of resolve that I don’t share. For contrast, I absolutely felt that in the finale of “Sex Education,” which teased the possibility of Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) all season but ultimately saw them parting ways and grateful for their time together. Otis and Maeve were always the presumed endgame, just like Jessie and Tom, but viewers get to spend time up-close-and-personal with everything that does and doesn’t work in their relationship, as well as watching it unfold with consistent pacing. Maybe the seven days of Biblical flood in New York City just got to me.

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Ben Travers: I hate to tread in other critics’ footsteps, but I’ve come to praise “Starstruck,” not to bury it. Season 3 relies on a reconsideration of the title, and I do agree with you on a number of other points: Romantic montages, whether they race through the good times or the bad, tend to be a cop out. Jessie and Tom’s different lifestyles and differences of opinion are glossed over in a way that can feel like cheating, especially when you start the season in their corner, hoping for the fairy tale ending. And I, too, would watch another season focused on Jessie and Liam, who have their own dynamite chemistry and sweet early-days romance.

Why I think “Starstruck” Season 3 really works for me, though, is because of how well it fine-tunes Season 2. That’s the season I found frustrating. Maybe it’s just because Jessie’s emotionally manipulative ex-boyfriend is named Ben (and I took that personally), but the sophomore effort just doesn’t come together. Not on its own. It tries to pivot from a wish-fulfillment rom-com — where an average movie theater employee meets and falls for the movie star of their dreams — into a character study about one-half of the couple’s arrested development. It takes too long to acknowledge Jessie is self-sabotaging her relationship with Tom, leaving a lot of the season feeling unfocused — like it must keep the two of them apart, or risk running out of story to tell. I hate that feeling. You should never notice the writers’ pulling strings, especially in a romance, and the ending pond-walk profession of love only confuses the season’s intentions. Was it about this couple finding a way forward? Was it about Jessie growing up? Neither path was smoothly plotted, and both made Tom’s movie stardom a moot point. Suddenly, “Starstruck” was just another rom-com, confused over how to advance its central romance.

Season 3 gets back on message. The opening montage may not answer all our specific questions about why Jessie and Tom split up, but it does make clear that they split up for actual reasons. It’s not Jessie’s immaturity or Tom’s posh social status or a momentary lapse in judgement; it’s the distance, and the kids, and the absence of something once all the charming banter winds down. (It’s such a good line, early in the montage, when Jessie asks, “If I killed someone, would you hide the body?” and Tom says, “You already asked me that one.”) After those first few minutes, it’s clear that “Starstruck” isn’t asking the same questions. Instead of exploring, “How does a love story between a bonafide movie star and an Average Jane actually work?” it’s asking, “How can you get over a massive, failed relationship when that person isn’t just liked by your friends and family, but beloved by the whole world?” Jessie can’t savor being starstruck anymore; she has to get past it.

Honestly, I would’ve been perfectly happy if the season (and series) had ended in Episode 5, when Jessie spots Tom at the hospital and instead of running into his arms (figuratively speaking), she acknowledges his presence and turns back to her best friend, who’s in the middle of labor. The scene sums up how much Jessie has grown, how much better she (and the audience) understands her connection to Tom, and how much we love her friends! (Really, the supporting cast is so, so good. Such a great group. Would hang out with all of them anytime.) Of course, I was quite happy to have one more episode to serve as an epilogue — buttoning up Tom’s recommitment to his fiancé, confirming Jessie’s continued interest in Liam, and giving everyone more time with Kate (Emma Sidi) and Ian (Al Roberts, who I know you remember from “What We Do in the Shadows,” Proma!).

“Starstruck” Season 3 isn’t perfect, but it does push the genre forward in dynamic ways — challenging viewers to rethink their own predetermined happy endings and decide for themselves what future they want. We’re not all going to marry movie stars, and you know what? It’s for the best!

“Starstruck” is now streaming on Max.

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