In an interview with Atlanta Magazine after the publication of her debut novel, Sweetbitter, author Stephanie Danler said, “There are few genres that Sweetbitter falls into, all of which I hate: coming of age, coming to New York City, and the restaurant book. When I was writing, I was really turned on by the idea that I could write against and with the best books of those canons, that I could challenge [them].” There’s truth in both sides of that — Sweetbitter, adapted into a new series on Starz, is definitely a coming-of-age, “welcome to New York,” and let’s-learn-about-wine story. But instead of fighting against those tropes, it fully embraces them, mostly to its advantage.
The short first season (running six, half-hour episodes) introduces us to Tess (Ella Purnell) just as she leaves her middle American town to go to New York in 2006. She’s young, inexperienced, and doesn’t have any real goals. And while she does has a wide-eyed charm and an openness to try any new experience, that blank-slate approach leaves her as the series’ least interesting character. It’s telling that Tess is almost exclusively referred to by the names bestowed on her by her restaurant co-workers: Baby Monster, Little One, Skipper. (I genuinely didn’t know her real name until the sixth episode). Tess is defined by the world and the people around her, because despite a few allusions to a difficult past, she hasn’t yet developed a personality of her own.
That world we’re introduced to revolves around the restaurant industry, as Tess quickly finds a job at a well-revered downtown established run by an unconventional owner, Howard (Paul Sparks) who sees her potential. But the rest of the staff does not, and Tess is ostracized until her relentlessly empathetic personality begins to win them over, one by one, starting with the brusque but kind Will (Evan Jonigkeit), who is also responsible for training her, and a flamboyant Russian backwaiter, Sasha (Daniyar). But Tess is particularly drawn to the glamorous Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), the restaurant’s most valued and knowledgeable employee, and Simone’s strange relationship with Jake (Tom Sturridge), on whom Tess has an enormous crush.
While the setup for Sweetbitter is pretty rote, especially in the first episode, the series quickly picks up steam as it turns more into an odyssey of New York life for a young adult. The show has great style, from the crowded and harsh kitchen conditions to the muted tones of the front of the house, and it knows when to keep the score to a minimum to accentuate the natural city sounds of the city or the clatter of dishes in the restaurant. It makes Sweetbitter both grounded and idealized, augmenting the feeling of Tess being overwhelmed by the intensity of everything that’s happening around her, and yet, always landing on her feet. There’s some pretension here with wine and gourmet food, but not much — the show never overplays its hand in fetishizing fine dining. It’s a job, just one that this particular group of people takes very seriously.
Though Parnell suffers from some accent slips (something that also distractingly befalls her co-star Sturridge), her portrayal shines when she embraces Tess as a doe-eyed, babe-in-the-woods, embodying the wonderment that someone her age can feel when confronted by any kind of expertise and knowledge. It’s the most noticeable, and at its best, in her interactions with FitzGerald’s Simone, who Tess studies as both a mentor and a rival. She’s jealous of Simone’s nebulous relationship with the moody Jake (whose bored “bad boy” routine lacks any real charm), but she’s also in love with Simone’s grace and intelligence. That serves to give further dimension to Simone, who appreciates Tess’ admiration of her, but also sees her as a threat. Tess wants to be Simone, but Simone misses being a Tess, i.e. the new girl. It’s one of the many tantalizing, nuanced, and shifting dynamics that the series constantly alludes to among the restaurant employees.
The ultimately charming Sweetbitter explores the existential questions of a nearly quarter-life crises with sincerity, not cynicism, which gives it an unexpected warmth and coziness. Tess’ journey is one that may not have an exact direction, but it is guided by the idea of not settling or making the easy choice. It’s an idea that challenges her again and again, via various interactions with the show’s vibrant and likable cast, as the series vitally understands how an intense workplace can create opportunities and a sense of family, if not exactly friendship.
Sweetbitter premieres Sunday, May 6th on Starz