Every generation has its young-girl-comes-to-New-York-City-to-find-herself coming-of-age show. The ‘90s had Felicity, with her University of New York friends, a gig frothing up $4 cappuccinos (price adjusted for inflation) at Dean & DeLuca, and a love triangle for the ages. She had big dreams and bigger hair.
The 2010s gave us Girls and Hannah Horvath’s mission to conquer New York City and spread the message that she was the “voice of her generation.” Things didn’t really turn out that way. After six seasons of unemployment and disappointment, something new (baby) and exciting (teaching position) came along, and Hannah had to settle for conquering upstate New York instead.
We can now add another woman’s name to that genre with Starz’s adaptation of Sweetbitter. Based on author Stephanie Danler’s highly-publicised novel of the same name, the series follows 22-year-old Tess (Ella Purnell) as she packs up her life in a small town to start a new one in New York City in 2006. By the end of her first week, Tess lands on her feet with a trial run as a back waiter at a top restaurant in Union Square. What follows is an intimate look at the lives of the servers that run the New York restaurant scene, the pleasures and dangers of a dalliance with drugs and alcohol, and a provocative love triangle that takes us to the darkest corners of the restaurant.
If Purnell looks familiar, that’s because she played Young Maleficent in Disney’s Maleficent. But to me she looks more like a grown up version of The Wonder Years’ Winnie Cooper than young Angelina Jolie. Other cast members, like Caitlin FitzGerald and Paul Sparks, starred in some of our most beloved shows. FitzGerald was on Masters of Sex and Sparks on House Of Cards and in The Greatest Showman.
Danler, who also wrote and produced the show, wrote the novel while working in the NYC food scene and working towards her MFA at The New School. She wanted to write a “universal” story that the audience has seen before, that of young, hopeful women who “think that they’re going to get a temporary job in the restaurant industry, and then get sucked into that world, fall down the rabbit hole, and get spit out at the end,” Danler said in an interview with Vanity Fair.
On that optimistic note, break out your fanciest $15 bottle of 2006 red and let’s dive right in.
Episode 101 — “Salt”
As so many other Young Girl Leaves Home To Find Her True Self shows, we open on Tess right as she’s about to peace out of her Anyplace, America, town (in the novel it’s in Ohio). Tess is setting the table in her home, taking extra care to arrange the cutlery and mug. Then, with one last look at an average-looking kitchen, she places a note on the plate and walks out the door.
“All I had was a vision. A city. Lit up. Loud. Full of people,” Tess says in a voiceover in between shots of her driving down endless highways on the way to New York.
As most New Yorkers, I take the city for granted. I never look up at the skyscrapers anymore, and if I do, it’s only to find the tiny patch of sky in between them. But I’m still a sucker for sweeping shots of the city. I say this because the quintessential shot of Tess’ car going over the George Washington Bridge into a sun-drenched Manhattan made me feel some type of way about the city. If it was any other millennial show, Taylor Swift’s “Welcome To New York” (blech) would be blasting at full volume. But this is a full eight years before Swift released that song, much to the chagrin of every New Yorker ever.
There are tiny reminders early on that we are in the pre-smartphone era, but we really grasp we’re in 2006 when Tess walks down the street with a MapQuest print out. For the youths in the back, that was a website we used for directions. That we then printed out and took with us. This was years before Google Maps was available to us wherever we went. (Let’s just say a prayer for the now-defunct HopStop NYC, the one true direction website real New Yorkers used.)
Back to Tess, clothes in black trash bags, she rents a room in an apartment in Williamsburg, sells her car, and without missing a beat, sets out to find a job. She may be young, but she is determined to make it. After a necessary job search montage, Tess walks into an interview with Howard (Paul Sparks), a manager at a fancy restaurant in Union Square modelled after the real-life Union Square Cafe. Sitting across from a deadpan Howard, Tess fails miserably at naming the five noble grapes of Bordeaux. Oh, you didn’t know them by 22, either? Tsk tsk.
What follows is the weirdest, most awkward interview ever, in which Tess appeals to Howard’s ego by complimenting his manicure. Apparently, the way to a man’s job offer is through his nails. But it clearly worked. She gets the job: a trial run as a back waiter. Which Tess finds out while sitting at an internet cafe. Again, it’s 2006.
Cut to the morning of the big day and Tess gets a whirlwind tour of the bustling kitchen from Will (Evan Jonigkeit, and if he looks familiar that’s because he appeared on Girls and is married to Zosia Mamet). This goes by so fast, I had to rewind and watch it again. Oh, and there’s a random man sobbing in the hallway off of the kitchen. Welcome to work!
At the loud staff lunch, Howard walks in with a carafe of red wine. Each person tastes a little. And the quiz to name the wine begins. Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), a put-together blonde, chimes in with the name, spitting out factoids about the year, background, and even rain levels of the region. Oh, and she detects a hint of black olives. Tess is impressed by this. I think Simone is a teacher’s pet and hate her immediately.
Back in the kitchen, Simone is the only person to show Tess a modicum of kindness by fixing up her ponytail. Then the background score changes, indicating something important is happening, and the camera follows a gruff and moody hottie as he walks through the kitchen with a bike slung over his shoulders. His hair is more messy than tousled. Not in the Timothée Chalamet or Joe Keery way, but in that oily Robert Pattinson way. He looks like he smells of stale cigarettes and last night’s whiskey. Tess is fascinated by this Bad Boy Bae. She’s 22, I get it.
The sobbing waiter from earlier, Sasha (Daniyar), whisks Tess away from the kitchen as servers Ariel (Eden Epstein) and Heather (Jasmine Mathews) mock the new girl to clean up a cut on her hand. But before Tess can warm up to this kind gesture, he spews invectives at her in a delicious Russian accent and in the process gives her my new favourite nickname: “baby monster.” Finally, a Russian actor in a Russian-speaking role instead of someone from Kentucky putting on a mediocre, vaguely-Soviet accent they learned from rewatching Borat — I’m looking at you Jennifer Lawrence. Sasha wins over my cold Soviet heart and is already my favourite character.
We’re three-fourths of the way into the episode and evening service hasn’t even started yet. Tess spots Simone and Bad Boy Bae giggling as they set up. His name is Jake (Tom Sturridge), and judging by their intimate body language, there’s clearly something between him and Simone. And if I know anything about every show ever, I would guess the writers are setting Tess up for a love triangle.
It’s minutes to service, and Simone somehow finds the time to give Tess a passive aggressive lecture about her character. “You have gotten by on your charm for so long that you haven’t developed character,” she says in an eerie monotone, warning Tess about a “missed opportunity to become a person.”
One thing I’ll say here: As you get older and comfortable in whatever job, craft, or career you’re in, it’s very easy to forget the crushing fear and panic that rushes over you whenever you start something new. You forget just how brave you had to be to push away from everything you knew; everything that was comfortable. So Simone calmly preaching Tess about developing character had me rolling my eyes. She left her home, found a job, and a place to live all in a matter of days. That takes guts and, yes, character. Go drink some wine, Simone.
By the time it’s time for service Tess is exhausted and having a panic attack in the hallway, hyperventilating on top of a shelf of spices. Has she made a mistake in moving to New York? Or just in her place of employment? Jake comes up and tells her to follow him to the dark pantry where he offers her a perfectly de-shelled oyster, an aphrodisiac. Tess takes a gulp and we’re treated to a black and white montage of waves crashing on the sand, Jake kissing her naked shoulder, salted fish, and Tess scratching his naked back. Wow, good thing he didn’t offer her a beet. That would make for a whole different kind of vision.
“What do you taste?” he asks. “Salt. Can I have another?” she responds as we cut to black.
I would have loved to see Tess bumble through her first dinner service but I guess we'll just have to wait for that. Purnell plays Tess with a doe-eyed earnestness that is truly endearing. She’s young, she’s scared, but there’s no going back. Mostly because she doesn’t want to seem like a failure, but, also, because she sold her car. Tess is here for good.
Highlights and Thoughts
— After finding out she got the job, Tess heads over to a payphone (#TBT) to call her father. We have no idea what he said, but judging by Tess’ reaction, it wasn’t very supportive.
— Even though he was hurried and at-times impatient with Tess, I liked Will way more than Jake. I would much rather see a love triangle between him, Tess, and Jake.
Best Sasha Quote: “Russian secret to getting blood off the shirt: Steal a new one.”