Why You Should Be Watching ‘Sweetbitter’
In the golden age of television, viewers' plates are looking pretty full — so between the harrowing Handmaid's Tale, the hit Roseanne reboot and a swiftly recycling arsenal of Netflix and streaming originals, is there space for a story of yet another wide-eyed twentysomething who finally makes the move to New York City?
To put it simply, Sweetbitter — which premiered Sunday night (May 6) — is worth at least a taste.
The Starz drama, based on the hit 2016 novel by Stephanie Danler, follows 21-year-old Tess (Ella Purnell), a Midwest-defector who decides she's prepared to make a big change. Beyond uprooting herself from Ohio and storming Manhattan, though, her plan of attack is mostly unwritten.
Still, after finally arriving at the city and settling into her dusted-over Williamsburg apartment, she manages to find work at one of the city's fine dining institutions (the restaurant is based on Danler's own time at Union Square Cafe). And after a single night — a flurry of lights, tastes, plates and pouring — Tess comes to understand she can't picture herself doing anything else. At least for the time being.
While occasionally scant on plot, Sweetbitter is romance in a bottle — more specifically, a vintage Bugey Cerdon, one of Danler's favorites. While the show spills over with drama (Tess has flings with two of her co-workers, a blowout with her boss and witnesses a friend topple over a balcony), it's the richness of Danler's prose, and, consequently, the color of Richard Shepard's TV direction that proves to be the delicious draw. Something as simple as the flicker of candles, the arrangement of silverware at a window-facing two top and the saucing of a series of hot plates by line cooks can prove to be as tantalizing as the actual taste of any glaze or gremolata. Here, richness and flavor are accessed, somehow, without the use of a tongue.
Still, the show can suffer for its characters' perceived blandness — consistently with the novel's most prevalent criticism, Sweetbitter the TV show has a habit of glossing over the minds and hearts of those who occupy its coveted dining room. Without real depth, back waiters, servers and bussers all function as beautiful, sugar-coated ghosts, searching wine cellars and supply closets not just for vintage Rieslings or stain-remover, but for some sort of purpose. Across a series of scenes, for example, we come to understand it's critical that Tess learn how to balance three hot plates on her forearm for service. But why, and what does the achievement mean for her growth? Here and there, Danler's plot choices can seem more like requisite allusions to perfect restaurant upkeep than attempts to tell compelling stories.
With only six episodes to its first season, Sweetbitter is — at its worst — a less-than-three-hour-long dreamland in which viewers can find themselves comfortably numb, sinking into buttery batters and vats of craft cocktails. But, as is the case with any restaurant's menu, there are moments of brilliance that exceed expectations, and Purnell's mastery of Tess' naïveté and compulsion to remain adrift — frequently sabotaging her own flightpath — are spot-on.
Sweet, sour, salty, bitter — here, you'll get a little bit of each. And while you may ultimately decide against returning to Sweetbitter, you won't regret having made the initial reservation.
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