If "Starstruck" were like most rom-coms, there would have been no need for a second season. After six episodes of stops and starts, leads Jessie (Matafeo) and Tom (Nikesh Patel) finally seem to get their happily-ever-after in the season one finale, which dropped in 2021.
But "Starstruck" is not like most rom-coms. And season two, which launches on March 25, bravely goes where classic '90s rom-coms never do: Beyond the grand gesture, and into the territory of making the relationship work.
Season two picks up immediately in the bus headed toward Heathrow Airport, which Tom boarded in an attempt to stop Jessie from returning home to New Zealand. What was a bold romantic act in season one now seems like an uneasy step toward further uncertainty.
"The second series explores what happens after you make that massive declaration romantic declaration — and it’s kind of awkward some of the time. Jessie didn't think it through, and you'll see the fallout from that," Matafeo tells TODAY.
After all, Tom and Jessie are still Tom and Jessie, bogged down with Tom and Jessie problems. For one, their status divides them: He's a famous actor; she's aimless and works in a movie theater. The bigger obstacle, though, is of an emotional nature: Jessie seems reluctant to commit to a relationship.
Linger on Tom and Jessie's expressions in the back of the bus in the season one finale, and all that ambiguity is there. The ship has left the harbor, and they don't know if they'll like the ride — let alone agree on a destination.
Originally, season two of "Starstruck" was going to skip over this phase, jumping to Tom and Jessie six months down the line. But Matafeo changed the timeline so the show wouldn't miss the "most interesting part" of a relationship: "Those awkward early months when you've taken such a risk to be together. Then it's realizing, 'Have I made a massive mistake, or not?'"
In "Starstruck" season two, the battlefield becomes the bathroom and birthday parties, and all the other places where Jessie and Tom attempt to merge their lives. For Matafeo, this early stage of the relationship is even more compelling than the journey to the relationship, which rom-coms conventionally focus on.
“Rom-coms are so much about the early part of the courtship. The will they, won’t they. When they get together, it feels like a resolution of that whole conflict. It’s interesting to explore when two characters actually get together and try to sustain being in love,” Matafeo says.
As a result of their mutual commitment to each other, Jessie and Tom excavate more of their emotional baggage in season two. The nature of their problems, and their conversations, changes.
"Season one was a lot of the external obstacles of these two characters being together — timing, miscommunications, ex-boyfriends. Everything was happening to them. The second series is them happening to each other, in terms of all the insecurities they bring to a new relationship. The obstacles are internal. Jessie has to sort herself out to properly be in a relationship," she says.
"Everything was happening to them (in season one). The second series is them happening to each other, in terms of all the insecurities they bring to a new relationship."Rose MAtafeo
"Starstruck" deviates from the rom-com script, for more reasons than going past the meet-cute: The series is notable for being an interracial rom-com in which both of the leads are not white: Patel is of South Asian descent, and Matafeo is part Samoan. (As a 5'10", curly-haired girl myself, I was also thrilled to see a protagonist who looked like me in a rom-com for the very first time).
"I used to do a stand-up show about how I looked, and who I am, that I'd always be forced to be the 'best friend' in a rom-com. I'm happy to be in a time when that's totally changed. I no longer have to provide exposition to the plot," Matafeo says, joking.
However, Matafeo stresses that "Starstruck" was cast with the intention of finding "the best people for the role." She says, "When you're not white, sometimes you second-guess yourself. You go, 'Why am I being cast in this role?' The fact that we went for whatever's best means a lot."
She recalls co-star Patel for the first time over Zoom. "He laughed at me — and I've got such a massive ego that if you just laugh at me, I'll you know, totally cast you," Matafeo says, echoing how often Tom laughs at Jessie's jokes in "Starstruck."
In the show, Jessie and Tom rarely discuss their identities. "Even though our cultural backgrounds are a big part of ourselves, it's not a talking point in the show. It's a story about two people falling in love, and it just so happens that we're not the kind of people shown in rom-coms from the '90s," she says.
Speaking of the '90s: For all its refreshing modernizations, “Starstruck” is very much in conversation with the classic rom-com tradition. Like the Julia Roberts vehicle “Notting Hill,” the show features a celebrity and civilian pairing dodging paparazzi to find depth.
Matafeo finds this particular set-up fertile ground for a love story. “Rom-coms thrive from people who are from different backgrounds and different temperaments. That clash of context and personality leads to an electric connection that you find in new relationships. It proves that you can’t manufacture chemistry. You can’t choose the people that you like, as much as you think that you can,” she says.
(An aside: Whereas Jessie does not get starstruck by Tom, despite the title, Matefeo constantly experiences the feeling of awe. "I've got zero chill when it comes to meeting people I've seen in films and on television, and I just I can't I can't control myself. It's quite embarrassing," Matafeo says.)
Indeed, "Starstruck's" changes — or, one could say, upgrades — to the genre serve to keep the spirit of the rom-com alive in a new era.
“Rom-coms give people a bit of hope in finding love. Everyone is looking for that, regardless of whether they admit it for not. It’s a driver for human life,” she says.
"Rom-coms give people a bit of hope in finding love."
As for whether Jessie and Tom have found love, or will continue to look for it? Matafeo says that after 12 episodes, she's ready to give the reins of the couple's story over to other people.
"I want there to be fan fiction. Where are the fan fictions about Jessie and Tom?" And somewhere, out in the universe of "Starstruck," the profiles about Jessie — Tom Kapoor's new girlfriend — are certainly being written.