Rom-com ‘Starstruck’ and coming-of-age comedy ‘We Are Lady Parts’ hidden TV gems

Nikesh Patel and Rose Matafeo in “Starstruck.” MUST CREDIT: Mark Johnson/HBO Max via Washington Post Syndicated Service

The search for love lands the protagonists of two new winsome comedies in some unlikely pockets of London. Graduate student Amina (Anjana Vasan), a rebel against rebellion who drags her permissive parents through a more traditional marriage process than they’d prefer, finds herself at the back of a halal butcher shop auditioning to join the titular female Muslim punk band in Peacock’s “We Are Lady Parts.” Gig worker Jessie (Rose Matafeo), a New Zealand native giving the big city everything she’s got (with little in return), ends up in an even more unexpected locale on HBO Max’s “Starstruck”: a movie star’s bed, a fact she only realizes the morning after.

“Lady Parts” and “Starstruck” aren’t particularly similar shows – more distant cousins than close sisters. The first is a relatively novel and culturally specific belated-coming-of-age story, about a young woman finally defying the rules that, in a bid for structure and a sense of belonging, she’d largely imposed on herself. (What mysterious force propels any self-respecting microbiology PhD candidate to get out of the lab and onstage? Horniness, of course.) Featuring a multiracial and multicultural array of Muslim women (whose casually demure, neck-to-ankle-coverage clothes range from tomboyish to bohemian to vampish), “Lady Parts” is a thoughtful and purposeful step forward in greater representation that also evinces a deep skepticism of the oft-simplistic, outrage-based representation politics so common online today.

“Starstruck” is a lower-stakes, less ambitious show, though it, too, is interested in emotionally grounded tweaks to a crowd-pleasing formula (in this case, that of the romantic comedy). And it shares with “Lady Parts” the heralding of an exciting new voice we’ll undoubtedly hear more from, as well as an introduction to the kind of magnetic screen presence you instantly want to root for.

In the case of “Starstruck,” those two are the same person: series lead and creator Matafeo. The comedian, who also released a special on HBO Max last summer, deftly achieves the balancing act of indulging in the show’s high-concept premise of a normie dating a celebrity while gleefully sanding down some of the aspirational gloss from the fantasy. When Jessie, her character, is first caught leaving her A-list love interest’s apartment by the paparazzi, they immediately assume she’s the housecleaner. Later, recounting her presumed one-night stand with Tom the Movie Star (Nikesh Patel of Hulu’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral”) to her roommate (Emma Sidi), Jessie brags with genuine pride, “I am forever a stain on his sexual history.”

Jessie doesn’t look like the kind of svelte blonde that, say, Leonardo DiCaprio’s been linked to by the dozens. But she’s instinctively confident and comfortable with herself in a way that Tom isn’t – a reversal of expectations that lends their pairing a surprising frisson. Jessie can’t help what comes out of her mouth, like when she greets every reminder that Tom is an actor with a knee-jerk disgust, but she’s unflappable enough to stand by each and every one of her preferences and opinions. Matafeo also dispels the wish-fulfillment element of part-time movie-theater worker Jessie getting to experience Hollywood perks; her one foray into Tom’s work life leads to their biggest fight.

“Starstruck” often feels like a one-woman show, with a much greater emphasis on the com than the rom, but Matafeo and the dryly funny Patel share the kind of relaxed, banter-y chemistry that makes or breaks shows like this one. Even with the entire season coming in at just about two hours with six 20-minute episodes, there are a couple of saggier stretches, especially when Tom’s out of the picture. But a later subplot about Jessie’s loneliness as a transplant with little to show for her struggles in the city grounds the series in a stinging melancholy. That the show is able to weave these disparate story lines together as convincingly as it does is a testament to Matafeo’s irresistible invitation to empathize with the bittersweet travails of her character without a hint of self-pity.

From left, Sarah Kameela Impey, Juliette Motamed and Anjana Vasan in “We Are Lady Parts.” MUST CREDIT: Saima Khalid/Peacock via Washington Post Syndicated Service

But why settle for one soul mate when you can have four? In “We Are Lady Parts,” Amina’s crush on a bearded hottie on campus leads to her true love: A tribe of women who can see her potential and want to help her reach it. Her best friend Noor (Aiysha Hart) certainly doesn’t seem interested in doing so. (If studiously conventional Amina allows herself one deviation from the norm – the only one Noor allows – it’s her old-fashioned tastes: country crooners, black-and-white movies and florid romance novels. She admires in voice-over one potential partner’s “shoulders of a Mesopotamian warlord.”)

Lady Parts’ uncompromising frontwoman Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey) is the only one who believes in Amina at first. The band needs a guitarist, but Amina’s never been able to perform in front of people without throwing up. Thankfully, punk is more receptive to bodily fluids than most genres. Hardened, tattooed Saira – whose relationship with her family frayed after the early death of her sister – is willing to mentor Amina when even the group’s resident softy, bassist Bisma (Faith Omole), is ready to give up on the talented newbie.

Amina keeps her musical activities a secret from her devout school friends, forcing the already nervous priss into a double life. There’s some broad fun in that, but “Lady Parts” becomes the unassuming powerhouse that it is when it dives deeper into Saira’s backstory and the group’s minor members court some internet fame, to predictably disastrous results. Drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) and band manager Momtaz (Lucie Shorthouse) invite an influencer (Sofia Barclay) to interview Lady Parts, unaware that the social media savant is more interested in notoriety than the truth. A certain kind of culture warfare gets clicks, and the band’s naivete in letting someone else tell their story, even in 2021, feels all too believable when they’ve been mired in Saira’s outdated ideas about publicity-eschewing “integrity” for so long.

To add insult to injury, Lady Parts gets written up in the interview as “unskilled,” but the show’s actual music is a blast – rushes of joy on an already sweet and effervescent show. The original songs are catchy, mostly riffing on minor annoyances like little sisters and unreliable men, though one flirts with edge when they scream, “Broken by the empire / Raised by MTV.” But Impey’s punk cover of “9 to 5” in the band’s first successful performance proves that Saira’s secret dreams of going big aren’t just delusions, and a rendition of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” serves as both a subversive anthem for the characters and a stirring reminder that our collective culture can only improve when everyone feels empowered to speak and to sing.

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“Starstruck” (six episodes) is available now on HBO Max.

“We Are Lady Parts” (six episodes) is available now on Peacock.

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