At the risk of stating the obvious, television caters to two senses: sight and sound. Starz’s “Sweetbitter,” about a young woman’s beginnings in the restaurant industry, wants to also focus on taste. The series uses creative visuals to try and conjure up taste memories in viewers, and the phrase “sweet, sour, salty, bitter” becomes something of a mantra in the second episode. It’s an interesting choice that helps to liven up what could have easily become a run-of-the-mill story.
Based on the novel by Stephanie Danler (who also serves as an executive producer and writer), “Sweetbitter” follows 22-year-old Tess (Ella Purnell) after she spontaneously moves to New York City, alone and without a real plan. Despite being an English major and only having experience in a small coffee shop, she snags a trial basis job training to be a backwaitress at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant. From there, it’s easy to predict what will come next: the booze, the sex, the drugs.
Because stories about twenty-somethings growing up and screwing up in New York City aren’t anything new, “Sweetbitter” is immediately faced with the challenge of trying to distinguish itself. The restaurant setting gives it an inherent edge because, unless you count “Bob’s Burgers,” basically the entirety of current restaurant-set television sits in the reality genre. (The closest cousin to “Sweetbitter” is FOX’s 2005 sitcom “Kitchen Confidential,” which starred Bradley Cooper and was yanked off the air after only four episodes.) The restaurant in “Sweetbitter” allows the show numerous advantages: it doubles as a workplace series, it quickly gives Tess a makeshift family through the close-knit coworkers, it puts her in close quarters with a mentor and a love interest, and it provides a concrete series arc (Tess has to pass her trials in order to officially get the job).
But at the same time, there’s a lot of missed opportunity here, like how the diversity of restaurants is only slightly touched upon even though it provides a perfect setting to dig into undocumented workers and their hardships. And in this era where television is clamoring to bend itself to fit in with the Me Too movement, it feels odd that “Sweetbitter,” which certainly features its share of sex between employees, ignores it completely — especially considering how common sexual harassment is in the restaurant industry.
“Sweetbitter” doesn’t need much exposition, so it spends its short season crafting its characters and their relationships. For the most part, Tess works as the protagonist. Purnell excels at playing Tess as young and literally wide-eyed — notable not only because the series has to show off Tess’s naivete (and explore how one can easily fall into vices) but also because her biggest personality trait is that she’s an observer. This ability to fade into the background works in an industry where, as one character puts it, the employees “make ourselves small so the guests feel big.” Tess takes in the world around her, often watching the restaurant happenings from the second floor, or disappearing behind a wine rack while others unknowingly reveal their secrets. She explores a coworker’s apartment as if inspecting art in a museum. Part of why general manager Howard (Paul Sparks) seems impressed with her is because she observes his manicured nails during the interview. It means that Tess can also be passive; it’s sometimes frustrating to watch her simply let things happen to her — especially so when she’s making easy mistakes but, of course, making mistakes is what we do at 22.
This intense focus on Tess, while necessary, means that many other characters get ignored. Sure, much time is devoted to the two coworkers Tess is most infatuated with: Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), a self-possessed woman who is simultaneously eager to mentor Tess while also curiously keeping her at arm’s length, and Jake (Tom Sturridge), the typical too-quiet, mysterious, and stupidly hot love interest who might as well always be shown in slow-motion. Some of the show’s best moments are when it interrogates this triangle between the three — Simone and Jake have a strange connection that the show delights in teasing out — and the push-and-pull effect it has on Tess.
But then there are restaurant employees like the lesbian backwaitress Ari (Eden Epstein), whose charisma makes you want to dive in deeper to her story, or Russian immigrant Sasha (a stellar Daniyar), a fun-loving character with a hint of sadness. While “Sweetbitter” works because it’s about Tess, it’s still hard not to wish it was more of an ensemble.
There are a lot of promising things to be found in “Sweetbitter.” Sure, it may seem a little jarring (or make you feel old) that it’s essentially a period piece that takes place in 2006 — it immediately made me think of Netflix’s inferior “Girlboss,” set the same year — but that heightens the fun and makes for a musical time capsule. Selections from The Kills and Yeah Yeah Yeahs are certainly reminiscent of early ‘00s Williamsburg, and a pretty accurate soundtrack to riding the L train.
If “Sweetbitter” were longer, I suspect it would lose much of its charm, but six 30-minute episodes is a welcome antidote to the number of television dramas with bloated episode runtimes. Rather than overstay its welcome, it remains fun and breezy.
TV Review: ‘Sweetbitter’ on Starz
Drama, six episodes (six reviewed): Starz, Sunday, May 6. 30min.
CREW: Executive producers, Stuart Zicherman, Stephanie Danler, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Sarah Esberg, Richard Shepard
CAST: Ella Purnell, Tom Sturridge, Caitlin FitzGerald, Paul Sparks, Evan Jonigkeit, Eden Epstein, Jasmine Matthews, Daniyar