'Sweetbitter': TV Review | Tribeca 2018
Stephanie Danler adapts her best-seller as a Starz half-hour drama that, through its first six episodes, has a fine lead in Ella Purnell but lacks bold flavors.
Television has no trouble being a medium for shows about food and restaurants. Those shows just have to be unscripted. Netflix has been on a recent tear with new installments of Chef's Table and Somebody Feed Phil and the superb Ugly Delicious joining two full cable networks of culinary coverage, Bravo's ongoing Top Chef, a dozen shows on Discovery and wherever Anthony Bourdain is eating this week on CNN.
When you start scripting shows about food, that's when you end up with short-run disasters like AMC's Feed the Beast or the sad disappointment of Fox's very good Kitchen Confidential, which couldn't last a full season despite Bourdain's brand and the developing star power of Bradley Cooper.
Starz's upcoming Sweetbitter (premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival), like Kitchen Confidential hailing from a best-seller, stands mostly as another datapoint for how tough this genre is. Much more engaging and less tonally punishing than Feed the Beast, but in no way as lively and clever as Kitchen Confidential, the six-episode first season of Sweetbitter is occasionally pleasant, but impossibly slight and stuck with a real dud of an over-teased central romance.
Sweetbitter is the story of Tess (Ella Purnell), who abruptly abandons her Midwestern roots and moves to New York City. Tess arrives without friends or family and, unlike most protagonists of her ilk, she shows up without any grander dreams. She isn't an aspiring writer or actress or model or filmmaker or chef or artist. She isn't in love or necessarily hungering to be in love. The character is defined by her unformed openness, tested by landing a job at a once-celebrated downtown restaurant now running a bit on tradition and fumes. She's hired by inscrutable and impeccably tailored manager Howard (Paul Sparks) and put to work trailing experienced back-waiter Will (Evan Jonigkeit). In no time, she's befriended by flamboyant Russian Sasha (Daniyar) and intrigued by pretentiously glamorous Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), who knows everything about wine, and mumblingly brooding Jake (Tom Sturridge), a bartender whose own relationship with Simone is tantalizingly ambiguous.
Stephanie Danler adapted her book for the small screen and most of the well-observed details of restaurant life in the series are straight from the page, only stripped of context. You sense Danler making sure she includes competitiveness over hidden bar-mops or the rituals of family meal in the pilot because she knows readers will expect them, without any consideration to how they've just become empty references here. The book is structurally held together by the passing of seasons, but it's otherwise just a string of loosely connected vignettes, with the main threads relating to Tess' professional advancement, her reluctant mentorship by the manipulative Simone and her all-consuming lust for Jake.
As little as it feels like happens in the first season of Sweetbitter, it still stuffs in most of the book's actual "incidents," plot points that play much better when they're part of Tess' dizzying, experiential journey on the page than when they're all that's taking place in a TV show that's doubly terse at six episodes of under 30 minutes apiece.
What gets lost is the almost dreamy flow of Danler's prose, as well as most of the non-narrative sensuality around Tess. My favorite moments in these six episodes are the ones that capture the cacophony of a busy kitchen, giving hints at the personalities and conversations and offering satisfyingly frustrating glimpses of beautifully photographed food that viewers can neither taste nor smell. It's a book about a sensory experience and the Richard Shepard-directed pilot gets that better than most of the subsequent episodes. Give me more food porn and more of the urban safari in New York's concrete jungle, fewer training montages and rote drug odysseys. Also, give me more of the multicultural melting pot of the kitchen, exploring its layers of languages and ethnicities beyond the pretty point-of-entry white girl.
Purnell, making a leap into adulthood after being aged down for Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is well cast for the impressionable side of Tess. Like anime-ready contemporaries Lucy Hale and Olivia Cooke, Purnell's face seems to be 50 percent wide eyes, immediately drawing us in as she reacts to the alien world of the restaurant and to the bedlam of the big city. When given good and specific performances to play off of — like FitzGerald's unreadable and weary wisdom or Daniyar's broadly played ethnic elan — Purnell radiates a receptiveness that works despite Tess barely having characteristics of her own.
Things get less convincing in the series' inevitable obsession or romance with Jake, which played as perfunctory on the page and makes a gaping black hole on the screen, while also bringing out the weaknesses in both Purnell and Sturridge's American accents. Sturridge's method affectations fit better for me in a number of past performances. Here, he's a marble-mouthed void and the lack of chemistry with Purnell is so instantaneous I suspect a second season would write it out entirely except that I'm betting many of the book's fans would riot, plus the unveiling of Jake and Simone's secrets is going very slowly.
These six episodes are, in restaurant terms, a soft opening or, in menu terms, probably an amuse bouche. Not even an appetizer. So far, Sweetbitter isn't a show of bold flavors. It's pretty tame actually. Other than some salty language, it could almost be a CW show, which I'm betting nobody involved was going for. In Purnell, FitzGerald and the wonderfully dapper-yet-creepy Sparks, I like some of the ingredients. Knowing the main course involves a relationship that's already a dud dampens my enthusiasm to stick around for the whole meal.
Cast: Ella Purnell, Tom Sturridge, Caitlin FitzGerald, Paul Sparks, Evan Jonigkeit, Eden Epstein, Jasmine Mathews and Daniyar.
Creator: Stephanie Danler
Showrunner: Stuart Zicherman
Airs: Sundays at 8 p.m. ET/PT, premiering May 6 (Starz)