Rose Matafeo's Starstruck has always been keenly aware of its place in romantic comedy history. The premise — a regular woman falls in love with a famous actor — plays like a gender-swapped Notting Hill, right down to the changing seasons of the BBC/Max comedy's first season. Certain genre conventions are referenced without hesitation ("An airport chase would've been horrible. You know I have a bad knee"), while others are incorporated into Jessie (Matafeo) and Tom's (Nikesh Patel) will-they/won't-they story in unique ways, like Jessie's watery declaration of love in the Season 2 finale.
Starstruck Season 3 continues this trend, even as it breaks up Jessie and Tom and sets them on divergent paths. A two-minute montage in the premiere efficiently brings viewers up to speed in the aftermath of Jessie and Tom's pond kiss. Charming vignettes of them celebrating holidays with friends and joking around at home turn sour as Tom spends more time away from London filming; when he does return home, they fight constantly, until finally, they call it quits.
Two years later, they've both moved on, to varying degrees of success: Tom is engaged to another actor, Clem (Constance Labbé), and Jessie is fumbling her way through single life. When Jessie meets Liam (Lorne MacFadyen) at Kate (Emma Sidi) and Ian's (Al Roberts) wedding, it seems as if the witty electrician will be the perfect "palate cleanser" — think of it as a more polite riff on the age-old "the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else" advice — but her unresolved feelings for Tom (and vice versa) prevent either from fully committing to their new relationships.
At various points in the six-episode season, Jessie and Tom put those feelings into action. They kiss twice, first in an awkward accident, and then backstage before a performance of his new play; later, Tom, while out for his stag night, tells Ian he's still in love with Jessie. Tom's admission, which makes its way back to Jessie within a single episode, sends both parties spiraling, culminating in an emotional climax in the finale. The way that conversation plays out, with its teasing jokes and hesitant vulnerability, makes for a fitting end to a love story that has unraveled in fits and starts over the course of many years.
While the chemistry between Matafeo and Patel is as electric as ever in Season 3, a back-and-forth romance like Jessie and Tom's is difficult to sustain over a long period of time. (Hence why there are so few rom-com sequels, and even fewer good ones.) But Matafeo and co-writer Alice Snedden remain aware of the potential pitfalls and maneuver around them by expanding the world around the show's central relationship. The season spends much more time with Jessie's extended friend group, treating viewers to laugh-out-loud group scenes with Ian and Kate, now pregnant with their first child, married couple Steve (co-writer Nic Sampson) and Sarah (Lola-Rose Maxwell), and Joe (Joe Barnes), Jessie's supervisor at the cinema and new roommate.
Jessie has always been the most aimless of the bunch, but as her friends prepare for the next phases in their lives — and as she falls back into a holding pattern with Tom — she feels more lost than ever. "33, I thought I would've been further along in life," she admits during a birthday happy hour attended by just one person, her friend Amelia (Snedden). "I feel like I'm f*cking up constantly. I can see where I f*ck up, and I can look back on it and know it's happening, but I can't stop the thing from happening in the moment."
Unlike previous installments, which lived and died by Jessie and Tom's ups and downs, the most profound moments of Season 3 arise directly out of Jessie's existential crisis, which only worsens as Kate's due date approaches. The relationship between the best friends becomes a focal point of the season, and Matafeo and Sidi (who are close friends in real life) do some of their best work as they navigate their all-too-relatable anxieties about being left behind by the other. It's this push-pull, not her relationship with Tom, that drives Jessie's growth, and though she doesn't have any clear answers at show's end, she's matured enough to know when to put herself first, and when to make room for someone else.
With so much emphasis put on Jessie's journey of self-discovery, Starstruck's third season is almost anti-romantic. It eschews the fantasy of previous seasons, instead finding humor in the messy realities of a woman who doesn't have things all figured out. The finale even disabuses viewers of the notion that people are destined to be together, one of the most powerful themes in romantic comedies and dramas. "I don't know if anyone's meant to be anything," says Tom. "My dad would always say: In life, you just have to pick a direction and go with it."
Ultimately, both Jessie and Tom follow that pragmatic advice, with each picking a direction that makes the most sense for them. Their choice marks a hard pivot away from Starstruck's roots, but in moving beyond their fairy tale romance, the show transforms into something far more memorable: a wry, deeply moving portrait of a woman coming into her own and making mistakes along the way.
Starstruck Season 3 premieres Thursday, September 28 on Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.