It's not hard to fall in love with Jessie in HBO Max's new rom-com series "Starstruck." Played by series creator and co-writer Rose Matafeo, Jessie is the kind of woman who, after a one-night stand with a guy in a houseboat, dances in celebration along the canal, high-fiving strangers along the way.
The joy in the scene is infectious; not only is Jessie a carefree, sex-positive protagonist, but the 1996 British R&B hit "Return of the Mack" provides the perfect accompaniment.
"I mean, what better song to choose to have a celebratory post-sex morning fantasy dance?" Matafeo said in a Zoom interview with Salon. "It was kind of hard actually to figure out what song we wanted to put there. I had a whole entire Spotify playlist of songs that I would walk around London, and be like, 'Is this the song? Is this song?' I just couldn't get 'Return of the Mack' of my head."
Agonizing over the song choice exemplifies the meticulous care that Matafeo, a comedian from New Zealand who lives in England, put into every aspect of "Starstruck," a six-episode comedy she co-wrote with Alice Snedden.
"I kind of obsessively care about the show and get a bit control-freaky. I was a head girl in high school, so I was that kind of energy. Every little tiny thing I'm kind of obsessed with," said Matafeo.
Fortunately, she channels this perfectionism into crafting imperfection onscreen. Jessie's canal-side dance is all the more endearing because it's full of moves that feel big with emotion, but are clearly performed by an amateur.
"It was fun to film. Although to be fair, I had my period and back pain that day. And it was a no choreography, all freestyle – I just wanted to get that on record," she said. "Early on I was like maybe I should get a choreographer and I was like, 'You know what, I'm going to trust my own instincts,' and it paid off because it's slightly sh*t and it's slightly good."
The dance is just one part of what makes "Starstruck" an ode to regular, messy people, and that includes celebrities. At the beginning of the series, Jessie is a Millennial woman from New Zealand living in London with two dead-end jobs and seemingly limitless confidence. She hooks up with a man named Tom (Nikesh Patel, "Four Weddings and a Funeral") on New Year's Eve, only to find out the next morning that he's a popular English actor.
Despite the name of the series, Jessie is singularly, almost insultingly uncaring about Tom's fame insofar as her interactions with him. She does not fawn, which Tom finds refreshing. As for what she sees in him, it's quite simple.
"Tom's like, pretty great. Tom laughs at her jokes. That's basically all you need to be a f**king dreamboat. It's so not hard," said Matafeo. "Try thinking about the last time a man laughed at you like really, like really laughed at you as a woman. That's why I cut the ones out that don't."
Having one's jokes laughed at isn't just an ego boost for a woman (although that's a nice bonus). As a professional funny person herself, Matafeo understands this and she deliberately wrote that quality into Jessie, "a total legend who has all of these really good one-liners just at her fingertips."
Plenty of men can only see women as a gender that must conform to certain narrow expectations – and humor doesn't fit. Fortunately, Tom is not that kind of man. If this seems like a low bar . . . it is. So is Tom's rather blasé reaction to Jessie informing him that maybe he doesn't want to have sex because she's on her period: "You do know I'm an adult man, don't you?" Swoon.
This rather basic feminism is all subtext though, as "Starstruck" maintains a screwball sensibility. But Matafeo's stand-up comedy special "Horn Dog" – which is filled with observations on pop culture, fandoms and gender – offers clues for understanding the interactions in "Starstruck."
One bit in particular begins by revealing that Matafeo was a film nerd as a teenager, which appeared to have some currency with the high school boys.
"Teenage boys are f**king thick as s**t, right. They are so easily impressed by any teenage girls who knows literally anything about any film ever made," she says. "So I'd always have boys come up to me. . . and be like, 'Wait, Rose are you are you telling me you've seen 'Memento'? Did you get it? Did you get it though?"
This incredulity about a woman knowing anything about film plays out in "Starstruck," where Jessie works in a movie theater. In one episode, a customer becomes rather antagonistic about his cinema expertise. First he's condescending when he thinks Jessie's favorite film is "Schindler's List" ("pretty obvious choice, no offense") and then is offended when she admits she hadn't seen that but had seen "Son of Saul," the Hungarian World War II film set in Auschwitz, instead.
"Well, that's for the 'Son of Saul' heads out there! I think that's a good indication of Jessie's knowledge. And that whole bit is a thinly veiled – I've got a stand-up joke about that – it's just my annoyance with film bros," said Matafeo. "So many people, particularly people who work in cinemas, have been like, 'I've had this conversation with so many people – so many dudes as well.' So, yeah, it's potentially the only rom-com that references 'Son of Saul.'"
Jessie pulls out her deep knowledge again when she wows Tom during a pub quiz, easily rattling off the names of six actors who starred in 1983's coming-of-age drama "The Outsiders." The difference is that he's properly impressed without having to "well, actually" her in the process.
"I like my 'Outsiders' reference because I literally didn't have to learn that line. The line was different every time because I truly am obsessed with that film. And so, every time the order of the actors was different," Matafeo said. "I was obsessed with that as a teenager. And also getting re-obsessed with it. I just bought the LP of the original soundtrack by Carmine Coppola. The nerd has not died."
While it's expected that Matafeo's personal passions and knowledge show up in the show's dialogue, apparently developing, writing and starring in "Starstruck" wasn't enough for Matafeo. She also drew her own logo for the main titles and created a font in her own handwriting for the end credits.
"See? Control freak," she confirmed. "That's because I'm really obsessed with fonts. I hate bad fonts, so I drew up one myself. I love Times New Roman. I think it's quite nostalgic. I like Comic Sans. Arial, obviously great. But Verdana, I don't have a lot of time for. I'm not liking Verdana."
Matafeo cannot not create. Her instagram feed shows her various pandemic projects such as a crocheted cardigan, hand-sewn masks, and a few dioramas. Which is to say that if this comedy thing doesn't work out, she won't be out on the streets.
"Yes, 100%," she said. "I would make a zine for every call sheet every week for the first shoot. And I would spend hours doing it on my one day off with a six-day shooting weeks. And I just loved it so much. So my backup career is zine-making. And I think I think it could be good. I think I could be truly happy and not stressed. I put genuinely as much effort into making a cross-stitch as I do making a television show. I think it keeps me alive . . . or it's slowly killing me. I'm not sure."
Matafeo is even considering creating a Pathetic Man calendar, a reference to Jessie's attempt to cheer Tom up after the premiere of his horrifically bad film. "I wish there were Pathetic Man calendars instead of sexy firemen ones," says Jessie.
It doesn't look like the zine machine will have to fire up its presses just yet though as more "Starstruck" is already on the way. That's fortunate because the first season ended with a bit of hope, but not necessarily a happily ever after. Over the course of a year as Jessie and Tom flit in and out of each other's lives, not quite sure what to do with their mutual attraction beyond that first night. By the end, a disheartened Jessie intends to return home to New Zealand when a similarly dejected Tom accompanies her on the bus to the airport. But instead of getting off on her intended stop, she stays on, and the last image is of the two kissing at the back of the bus.
"It's such a standalone narrative from the first episode to the sixth, and if you watch it all in one go, it kind of feels more like a film than it does a television show," said Matafeo. "So it was really nice to be able to just close off that story in a way as if there would be only be for one series, but leave it on a slightly open-ended ending as well."
Before Season 1 was shot, Matafeo already knew that "Starstruck" would get a second season and had written it up. But once the first season was produced, that experience and seeing the characters in their final form prompted the control freak to then revise the second season.
"It's hard. I think there's a reason why there's no sequels to rom-coms. Maybe I'm setting myself up for failure. Whenever the second series will come out, they'll be like, 'Yeah, there was a reason,'" said Matafeo. "It was a challenge to write what happens after that f**king bus, but I hope we've done an okay job."
Both "Starstruck" Season 1 and the stand-up special "Horn Dog" are streaming on HBO Max.