By Chris Byrd | Catholic News Service
NEW YORK (CNS) — Many moviegoers fondly recall the popular 1999 romantic comedy “Notting Hill.” The film charted the seemingly improbable relationship between regular bloke William Thacker (Hugh Grant), a London bookseller, and high-profile Hollywood actress Anna Scott (Julia Roberts).
Streaming now on HBO Max, “Starstruck” is, in a sense, a millennial take on the same story, albeit with a switch of gender roles. Unfortunately, as thus updated, the six-episode comedy — originally broadcast by the BBC in April — is both unappealing and morally wayward.
New Zealand comedian Rose Matafeo developed the series, which she also co-wrote with Alice Snedden. Additionally, under the direction of Karen Maine, Matafeo stars as Jessie, a 28-year-old Kiwi immigrant to the U.K. The show chronicles a year in the life of the East London resident.
On New Year’s Eve, while out on the town with her best friend and roommate, Kate (Emma Sidi), Jessie meets Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel). After a sexual encounter that same night, she belatedly realizes that Tom is a well-known actor.
Struggling Jessie, who’s employed both as a nanny and at a local movie theater, is skeptical whether someone with a working-class background and lifestyle like hers has any viable future with such a luminary. Tom, nonetheless, seems genuinely interested in her.
Subsequent episodes match the atmosphere of different seasons to ups and downs in the would-be couple’s fortunes. An autumn premiere for one of Tom’s films appears to be the occasion for an unwelcome turning point.
Reluctantly, Jessie accompanies the more enthusiastic Kate to the opening night, only to discover that Tom is now dating his attractive co-star, Sophie (Nadia Parkes). Back in his hotel room, Tom grows despondent over the movie’s poor quality, and Jessie attempts to comfort him. But Sophie soon returns with amorous intentions, forcing Jessie to spend a long night in hiding.
As Jessie’s prospects continue to fade, her story is marked by illicit drug use and dialogue replete, to a gratuitous degree, with profane and vulgar language. But it’s the program’s treatment of sexuality that will most dismay viewers of faith.
The 20-somethings who populate “Starstruck” are manically obsessed with bedding one another, and their hook-ups are depicted as both heedless and habitual. As Jessie observes, with distressing nonchalance, “Afternoon sex is essentially an errand.”
Some may defend this as an accurate portrayal of contemporary mores. But that doesn’t make the experience of spending time in the company of such degraded characters any more enjoyable.
On an artistic level, “Starstruck” falls short as well. It’s neither very plausible nor especially interesting.
Patel lacks the charisma to convince the audience that paparazzi would camp out on Tom’s doorstep or that groupies would clamor to have selfies taken with him. “You’re boring,” Jessie tells Tom, “I can’t make you more interesting.” That pretty well says it all.
Jessie herself is no prize, however. As her hopes for romance with Tom recede, she becomes disagreeably self-pitying — and, consequently, no fun to watch.
Despite all this, “Starstruck” may prove popular, and both the BBC and HBO have already ordered a second season of the series. Discerning TV fans, though — especially those committed to Gospel values — will want to persevere in the search for more thoughtful, nuanced and edifying alternatives.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.