Hollywood is taking another crack at life in the service industry. The latest coming-of-age-while-working-in-fine-dining series is Starz’ adaptation of Stephanie Danler’s bestselling memoir Sweetbitter. With one episode out to the public, we’d liken the show to a one Michelin mentioned restaurant, worth a visit if you’re hungry, but by no means worth a detour or a journey of it’s own.
Ella Purnell plays Tess, a wide-eyed (literally! Purnells’ eye’s are ginormous) ingenue who escapes the ennui of suburban America to find herself in New York, the big city. Despite absolutely no experience in restaurants and a complete lack of interview or conversational skills, Tess manages to land a job at 22W, a chic Manhattan eatery modeled on Union Square Café.
By the tenth minute of the episode, our protagonist is working as a trainee at the posh dining spot. By “working,” we mean that the character’s ignorance of her chosen field allows her and the audience to simultaneously receive an education in restaurant life.
Danler, also head writer of the series, stressed that the show is about characters not restaurants in pre-release interviews. However, the premier episode delivers plenty of the requisite industry-porn. The viewer is offered a pre-shit family meal, seating charts, walk-in references, and of course, lots of sauté pans atop burners in perfectly framed shots. Such nods are accurate but the reveals no longer hold the behind-the-curtain “wow” appeal that they did prior to 2000 when Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential was released.
Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald of “Masters of Sex”), Jake (Tom Sturridge of “The Hollow Crown”) and Sasha (Daniyar of “Claws”) serve as Tess’ mentors in the restaurant and the city. All three turn in solid performances, albeit in somewhat cliché roles.
Simone plays the senior captain and den mother. Her palate is apparently amazing. She is able to ID both year and producer of a 2000 Harmand-Geoffroy Gevrey-Chambertin in a blind tasting. Plus, she waxes poetic about the (true to real life) storms that interrupted the harvest in Burgundy that year. With such impressive skills, one can not help but wonder why she is not running the wine program in another establishment.
Sturridge’s Jake is a typical bad-boy bartender. Expect him to do lots of blow and sleep around in future episodes. Daniayr’s Sasha is a two-dimensional stereotype of both gay men and Russians; we learn that despite his cold exterior, he is warm and caring to the helpless Tess. Oh yes, there is also a server named Will (Evan Jonigkeit of “Frontier”) who serves mainly to flippantly dismiss all that goes on in the back-of-house.
Prestige TV lifer Paul Sparks plays the GM/sommelier/co-owner role to a tee. His perfectly manicured attire (and nails) along with a patrician, aloof demeanor feels about as authentic as it gets.
There is not much plot to the initial episode beyond establishing Tess’ entree into this new world. The production values meet the high standards we’ve come to expect from series on pay networks: excellent cinematography and art direction. (On that note, the set is a spitting image of 2006 Union Square Cafe, kudos to that team!)
However, there is plenty to gripe about. After Tess tastes her first oyster, we are subjected to an absurd black and white montage reminiscent of a Giorgio Armani commercial. Howard and Tess have a very awkward conversation about the GM’s nails. our heroine is told, “You have gotten by on charm for so long that you haven’t developed character” which is just some extremely forced dialogue.
Still, the majority of the writing is solid enough to be passable. In fact, the narrative is stronger than the original novel which was (rightly) criticized for an over-reliance on the narrator’s internal, pseudo-philosophical musings. Compared to the ill fated Bradley Cooper adaptation of Bourdain’s signature work, “Sweetbitter” is a treat. (Editor’s Note: The internet is virtually scrubbed of footage from the “Kitchen Confidential” series, a vehicle that was rife with glorified sexual harassment and misogyny. Perhaps, the vibe conflicts with Bourdain’s new role as a vocal ally in the #MeToo movement?)
So, is “Sweetbitter” good? Not really, but it’s good enough. The show will definitely not become our go-to dining spot, but we’ll certainly stop in a for another snack next week.