Sweetbitter has a compelling lead but in the first two episodes, “Salt” and “Now Your Tongue is Coded”, it hasn’t managed to break away from the stifling, all-too-familiar formula of the big city dramedy.
I’ve made it two full episodes into Sweetbitter, the new Starz series adapted from the novel of the same name by Stephanie Danler, and it occurs to me that I’m not entirely sure what the point of this show even is. The first two episodes, “Salt” and “Now Your Tongue is Coded”, follow an implausibly gorgeous but hopelessly naïve young woman, Tess (Ella Purnell), as she arrives in New York where she knows nobody and attempts to navigate the fancy Manhattan restaurant which hires her as a back waiter. Sweetbitter is based on a partially autobiographical novel, but you’d be hard pressed to tell. Something about it feels distressingly off, as though it’s the story of working in a high-end restaurant as told by an alien who was looking through one of the windows.
It starts with Tess. The saving grace of the character and in large part the show is Purnell, a beautiful and talented actress who is shouldered with a lot of the storytelling work, both in voiceover – “Salt” opens with her explaining to the audience that she just had to up and go to New York for no particular reason – to long, quiet reaction shots that hone in on her sparkling Powerball eyes. She has worldliness and wordlessness that both benefit Sweetbitter; she’s the only character in the show who feels like she might be a real person, even if she’s admittedly quite a dumb one.
I’m not being unkind, either – her relative idiocy is a lot of the point, which is why I wonder why Howard (Paul Sparks), the owner of the high-end restaurant that employs her… well, employed her. She has no skills and no experience and no clue. When he asks her what she’s reading, her being an English major, she asks, “Is that a normal interview question?” Are we supposed to assume she has never attended a job interview before? No, of course it isn’t a normal interview question, Tess, although Howard is one of those deliberately enigmatic fancy-pants types, so to him perhaps it is.
Speaking of enigmatic, so too is the head server, Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), who becomes something of a tutor to Tess, while also being an object of fascination because she understands basic anatomical concepts like how the human tongue detects different tastes. “How do you know all this?” asks Tess, her tiny little mind blown. One would imagine this isn’t a particularly profound revelation, but one would be wrong. Simone has a maybe-romantic relationship with Jake (Tom Sturridge), who she has known since childhood, and Tess likes the look of him too, being the badboy bartender and all, but really he comes across as a bit weird and rude, which I suppose is befitting of the “badboy” label. More entertaining is Sasha (Daniyar), an incredibly flamboyant gay Russian with green card issues.
The point of all this is to thrust the audience into the atmosphere of a high-end restaurant; the relentless chaos and unpleasantness of the kitchen, and the serene upscale dining room where these hard-partying arrogant cokeheads almost prostrate themselves at the feet of the “guests”, which Howard insists on calling them. It’ll feel relatively true to life for those who have worked in the industry, as will the extent to which everyone seems up in everyone else’s business, which is covered by “Now Your Tongue is Coded”, the second episode, wherein Tess inadvertently finds herself at a local bar that is so full of colourful eccentrics that for a moment I suspected the entire episode was a dream sequence.
I’m sure there’s a food metaphor to be made about Sweetbitter, but I’m above such things. Danler, who wrote several episodes along with the source material, has insisted that the show is a coming-of-age story much more than a kitchen drama, and she’s right. The focus is always on the personal. The problem is the personal just isn’t very interesting. Things might improve in subsequent episodes, but the first two are distinctly lacking in an ability to overcome that stifling formula. Maybe if they had a little more… spice.
Turns out I’m not above such things after all.