Nikesh Patel has been in more rom-coms than he's watched.
But in all his experiences, both as an actor and a viewer, he knows one thing to be true about the genre: "If there isn't chemistry, the story won't sell," the "Starstruck" actor said.
Take "The Princess Bride," what he described as his favorite rom-com, for example.
"It presents as a fantasy," he said. "A swashbuckling adventure. But if you connect with that film, you can't tell me it's because you're not waiting for Westley and Buttercup to be reunited."
Chemistry between two characters makes something "infectious" to watch, he said. That's exactly why "Starstruck," in which Patel plays Tom, opposite comedian and show's creator Rose Matafeo's Jessie, works so well.
The series, which returns for a second season on HBO Max on Thursday after debuting in the U.K. on BBC Three last month, follows Jessie, a New Zealander who lives in London, and Tom, a movie star, after they decide (at the end of season one) they want to be together.
The first season, which debuted in 2021, received rave reviews, with a 100 percent tomatometer rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Season two picks up at the exact moment where season one left off.
"I think it’s a master stroke to start the story exactly for series two exactly at the point where most rom coms would end," Patel said.
In this case, on a bus en route to the airport, where Jessie was supposed to be catching on a flight home and leaving London for good. Instead, in a sweet, spontaneous, romantic gesture, she stays for Tom.
"You’d never have to think about it, you just assume they’d live happily after," Patel said of the end of season one. "The way season two starts, it tackles what’s next head on."
And what's next isn't exactly easy. Like all couples, the two have to navigate the early stages of the relationship — all the highs and lows, the awkward moments, the meetings of friends.
What's less universal, of course, is the fact that Tom's a huge celebrity, which does impact their relationship, whether they want it to or not.
The romantic beats are really strong, and the writing doesn’t pull its punches.
-Nikesh Patel on 'Starstruck'
“The strength of show is it’s not afraid to really go there when it comes to these two characters misunderstanding each other,” Patel said. "The romantic beats are really strong, and the writing doesn’t pull its punches."
In both the first and second seasons, Matafeo and co-writers Alice Snedden and Nic Sampson find a way to make rom-com tropes seem fresh.
A rom-com can go one of two ways, according to Patel, who previously starred in Mindy Kaling's remake of "Four Weddings and a Funeral."
"You can offer the audience that is something exactly like they’ve seen before," he said. "Or you could try too hard to come in and be ironic or rip up the rule book."
"Starstruck," he said, "hits the real sweet spot, kind of in middle."