Starz might be the land of big, winding epics — the American Gods and Outlanders of the world — or hyper-masculine, violent fare like Ash Vs. Evil Dead and Power, but that looks like it’s changing. Now that the turn-of-the-century feminism of miniseries Howard’s End has come to an end, the premium cable network will give viewers a Sunday night powered by young women. Newbie Sweetbitter, based off of Stephanie Danler’s beloved novel of the same name and adapted for television by the author, will kick off that evening.
While the coming-of-age series, about a Midwestern transplant who stumbles her way into the intoxicating New York City restaurant scene, feels more like an appetizer than a full meal thanks to its 30-minute-or-less installments and scant six-episode first season, it’s at least worth a taste. If only for its achingly honest portrayal of what it’s like to be a young woman desperate for something — only the specifics of that “something” escape you.
We enter Sweetbitter, premiering May 6, in 2006, as our heroine Tess (Ella Purnell) escapes her suburban, Middle American monotony for the bright lights of New York City. Tess, with her Big Eyes looks, has no idea what she’ll find in the Big Apple, but she’s hungry for it nonetheless. “All I had was a vision: a city, lit up, loud, full of people,” she explains in voiceover. Most shows would end the introductory prologue there, with all the hope left in its protagonist’s voice. Yet, Sweetbitter, attempts to live up to its name. Some darkness creeps into reverie of Tess’ New York dreams as she adds, “But when you come from a place without it, you can’t know what it really is until you get there.”
Soon enough, the young woman is hit by the harsh realities of America’s most infamous concrete jungle, both financial and emotional. Remember, it’s 2006. Tess can’t Instagram and tweet away the loneliness of living in a brand-new city without knowing a single soul, or hop on Facebook’s Marketplace section to make a quick buck off her car. If you ever forget what kind of digital dark ages the mid-aughts were, Sweetbitter is there to remind you with the prevalence of pay-phones and their brick-like flip phone cousins.
The silence of Tess’ new, fairly barren life in New York leads her to apply for a back waiter gig at an unnamed exclusive eatery only referred to as “The Restaurant.” The quietly elegant spot is loosely based on creator Danler’s real-life former place of employment, NYC’s Union Square Cafe, and Tess is immediately smitten with the fresh flowers and pink chairs of the fictionalized eatery. Since Sweetbitter wouldn’t have a show without Tess scoring the job, she does, despite her complete lack of qualifications. The zen master managerial style of the impeccably appointed Howard (Paul Sparks), who hires Tess, adds to the magic of The Restaurant. The luxurious space, which feels like it exists in its own, special universe, always has the hint of destiny.
Despite the rarified air that fills Sweetbitter’s central space of The Restaurant, it doesn’t feel like a fairytale. Yes, Tess seems to lock down an apartment and a job shockingly fast for someone who blindly hightailed it to New York without either, but that’s simply speedy storytelling. Does anyone want to watch a wide-eyed 20-something-year-old fail at the job search for more than roughly two minutes? Of course not.
Instead, the dramedy takes the many fantasies of New York City living — the exact fantasies that led Tess to the Big Apple in the first place — and explores their sweet highs and bitter lows. It's a fairly bleak, very Peak TV look at the unrealistic framework that supported previous frothy NYC adventures like Sex And The City and most romantic-comedies. In fact, it's one that probably couldn't have existed on television in 2006.
Tess' romantic situation proves this is a far more complicated look at growing up than, say, fellow NYC-set coming of age saga The Carrie Diaries. Upon Tess' arrival at The Restaurant, as she finds herself in a messy love triangle between Nice Guy ex-film student Will (Evan Jonigkeit), another back waiter, and bad boy bartender Jake (Tom Sturridge). While Jake, with his safety pin earring and no-effs-to-give attitude, is unquestionably alluring to Tess, Sweetbitter itself doesn’t feel quite so enamored with him. People repeatedly point out how the marble-mouth New Englander is actual Bad News, not sexy rom-com hero bad news. If your friend started dating Jake, you would probably quietly pray for his quick exit from their life. Yet, Will doesn't scream “end-game” love interest, either.
In that same vein, nothing else feels sugar-coated about Tess’ down the rabbit hole exploration of her new home. Someone might do her a solid in one episode, but that burgeoning friendship might lead to an integral item of clothing being tossed in the garbage later. A wild and memorable night out with her co-workers could end in tragedy, either physical or psychological. And, most importantly, the warmth of The Restaurant’s unofficial queen, Simone (UnReal suitress Caitlin FitzGerald), feels like it could turn into a scolding hot, fatal burn at any second.
While Tess’ relationships with Jake and Will comes off less than obsession-worthy, the wide-eyed young woman’s connection with Simone jumps off the screen. It’s fascinating to watch Tess struggle with a very potent mix of jealousy and awe when she looks at Simone, who grew up with Jake and has more knowledge about food and wine in her pinky than Tess does in her whole body. It often feels like the younger woman, who grew up without a mother, wishes she could crawl inside of Simone’s skin; to see what she sees, know what she knows, and feel Jake how Simone feels Jake. Simone, in return, comes off both wary and welcoming of Tess’ barely concealed fixation with her. It’s a relationship just shy of the dark deliciousness of Killing Eve’s Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer).
When Sweetbitter held its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, creator Stephanie Danler and showrunner Stuart Zicherman explained the Stuart introduced himself to the author by proclaiming, “Here’s why restaurant shows don’t work.” That’s why the duo didn’t make a restaurant show. Rather, it’s an office drama that just so happened to swap out the break room and desks for a fiery kitchen and a dining room of tables. All the sumptuous food and expensive wine merely acts as window dressing for the relationship turmoil at hand.
That is what will make you both consider dropping everything for the grimy streets of New York, while also remembering it’s the kind of city that could eat you whole. If that kind of conflict is as tantalizing to you as it is to Tess, you're officially ready for Sweetbitter's tasting menu of a freshman year.
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