‘Sweetbitter’, the television adaptation of Stephanie Danler’s novel about a young woman and a fancy New York restaurant, calls out for — or at least excuses — a food metaphor. The obvious choice is appetiser, or even amuse-bouche, given that the show’s first season on Starz is just six half-hour episodes.
I’m going to go with squab, though. Even a three-hour show should have more meat on the bone than this.
‘Sweetbitter’ begins with Tess (Ella Purnell), an unformed 22-year-old from Ohio, shedding her old life and making the drive to New York in 2006. The time period is established by the MapQuest printout she uses to navigate Williamsburg, her new neighbourhood, and by the bland Pottery Barn-style decor of the Manhattan restaurant where she’s given a trial as a server. (In the book, it’s based on Union Square Cafe, where Danler worked.)
The season extends through her trial, during which she washes dishes, fetches ice, buses tables and — perhaps to a greater extent than would happen in real life — actually waits on tables. More important for the purposes of the show, she falls under the spell of New York as embodied in her co-workers, including the imperious Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald of ‘Masters of Sex’), the scruffy-cute Jake (Tom Sturridge) and Sasha (Daniyar), a gay Russian with green-card problems.
Danler, who developed the series herself and wrote several episodes, has worked in interviews to position ‘Sweetbitter’ as a coming-of-age story rather than a restaurant story, and she’s right. For all the screen time spent on the preparation and presentation of food, the focus is always on the personal. Tess may struggle to perfect the three-plate carry, but she’s really trying to figure out what’s going on between Simone and Jake, and whether she can (and should) get in on it.
Is any of this sounding familiar? It may seem unfair, 20 years down the line, to trot out ‘Sex and the City’ in the discussion of a new story about a young woman’s New York awakening. (Just ask Lena Dunham.) But the ‘Sweetbitter’ playbook isn’t much different.
The show has a moody, dark peak-TV look and tone, and Tess is younger than Carrie Bradshaw, who was already an established writer and fashionista when ‘Sex and the City’ began. But Tess arrives in New York at about the same age that Carrie did, in her back story, and the scene she observes — one of the show’s defining traits as a drama is that she’s more of an observer than an actor — is populated by Bigs, toxic bachelors, gay husbands. Tess falls down the stairs at the restaurant like Carrie on the runway, hospitality roadkill.
‘Sweetbitter’ could overcome the familiarity of its situations if they had a little more flavour to them, but Danler is stingy with the spice. ‘Sex and the City’ worked because it was, for most of its run, an expertly tooled farce, but also because it sold the wonder of New York — you didn’t question why Carrie and her friends were always so excited.
‘Sweetbitter’ wants us to see how the inchoate, undefined longings that pull Tess to New York find a focus in the restaurant and how learning about food and wine kick-starts an entire sensibility, an approach to the world. For that to work, the show needs to sell the world of the restaurant the way that ‘Sex and the City’ did the city.
But the picture we get of it, and of the staff’s decorously debauched after-hours partying, is flat and unconvincing. The details of the trade may be presented accurately, but the emotions feel canned and the behaviour rehearsed. There’s the same studied, cautious tastefulness that you often get from a Manhattan expense-account restaurant.
Purnell, a British actress in her first major US role (she played the teenage version of Angelina Jolie’s character in ‘Maleficent’), bears a large burden. Unlike Carrie, Tess doesn’t have a crew — the season is partly about her finding one — and everything is seen through her eyes. It almost seems like stunt casting, then, that Purnell has amazingly large, Cleveland-sized eyes, and her performance is unfortunately defined by them — drinking games can be developed around the number of silent reaction shots she’s been asked to do. If you make it to the end of the sixth episode, you’ll deserve a season-ending shot yourself.
‘Sweetbitter’ is now streaming on StazPlay.