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As a portrait of a late love, From Scratch is about as fond as they come. Sincere adoration radiates from every scene, enveloping its central couple and their loved ones even in moments of strife or struggle. The Netflix miniseries comes across as the work of someone savoring their dearest memories, which it essentially is — it’s based on the memoir by Tembi Locke, who also created the series with her sister Attica Locke.
If it’s an understandable impulse to want to cast a late love in the rosiest glow possible, though, it leaves From Scratch somewhat less clear-eyed, less complex and ironically less intimate than it could be. The results are still inviting enough, at least if you have a taste for sentimental romance. But to put it in terms its chef male lead, Lino (Eugenio Mastrandrea), might understand, it could’ve used a little more acid or salt to balance all that sweetness.
Cast: Zoe Saldaña, Eugenio Mastrandrea, Danielle Deadwyler, Judith Scott, Kellita Smith, Lucia Sardo, Paride Benassai, Roberta Rigano, Keith David
Creators: Attica Locke, Tembi Locke
From Scratch begins in a city filled with so much loveliness, it’s said to have driven artists to the brink of madness. It’s Florence in the summer of 2000, and law student Amy (Zoe Saldaña) has just arrived from the States in hopes of pursuing her true calling as an artist. But it’s Lino, a chef she literally bumps into on the street, who winds up the most consequential souvenir of her time abroad. By Thanksgiving 2002, he’s moved to Los Angeles to be with her, and from that point on their fates are bound together as they marry, pursue their dream careers, adopt a daughter and, eventually, deal with Lino’s cancer diagnosis.
Saldaña and Mastrandrea share a gentle, sexy chemistry that naturally makes us wish good things for the couple. But in constructing their fairy-tale romance, From Scratch sands off too many of their rough edges, rendering them somewhat bland and predictable. The first chapter hems and haws over a love triangle that yields no real tension, given that Amy herself barely seems able to muster up much interest in her other suitor (Giacomo Giannoti). Later storylines rush to gloss over any rough patches that arise between Amy and Lino, so that crises like homesickness or parental guilt barely have time to make an impression before they’re smoothed over with declarations of affection and showers of kisses.
The series becomes more interesting whenever its focus widens to include the people surrounding Amy and Lino, namely their families. In particular, Danielle Deadwyler (Till) offers much-needed doses of dry wit and straight talk as Amy’s big sister Zora, while Keith David becomes the family’s steady, cowboy-hatted anchor as Zora and Amy’s father Hershel. At the very end, From Scratch makes an intriguing pivot from a touching but essentially familiar girl-meets-boy drama into a more thoughtful reflection on how the love between a couple can become a bridge between communities and cultures, new horizons and ancestral roots.
It takes a while to get there, however, as From Scratch runs eight languorous hours. It’s easy to read affection into the series’ baggy pacing, given how tenderly the camera regards the long glances they exchange with each other, how much time and attention is lavished on Lino and Amy’s meandering conversations or the petty family drama around their wedding. But it’s hard not to wonder if a less partial storyteller might have felt more freedom to streamline some of the drama’s running themes or tighten some of its arcs — and if doing so might not have helped distill its emotions into more potent concentrations.
For that matter, perhaps someone with more distance could have shaded more nuance into the crisis that comes to dominate the story. Cancer is a nasty beast, even if Lino, in the tradition of TV cancer patients everywhere, wastes away rather prettily, and Saldaña taps into the rawest edges of grief when Amy breaks down sobbing or screaming after yet another round of horrid news. That the end comes gradually, as the prospects of a long and healthy future flicker, then dim, then snuff out altogether, only seems to make it more painful in some ways. It’s the less relatable, less palatable emotions that can come with such illness that From Scratch seems reluctant to confront.
Occasionally, hints of something darker and uglier creep in, as when a friend who’s lost a partner advises Amy that staying with a partner through sickness isn’t for everyone. But From Scratch raises the issue only so Amy can forcefully dismiss it out of hand; there is no room for doubt or weakness in this love story. It’s a noble reaction, and perhaps it’s true to the Lockes’ experience. But idealizing Amy and Lino’s bond isn’t necessarily the most interesting route for a fictionalized telling to take.
It is the more pleasant one, though, and pleasant is where From Scratch thrives. The series is stuffed with shots of picturesque homes and postcard-perfect vistas (L.A. might not be Florence, but From Scratch somehow manages to find the beauty in its endless stretches of sun-bleached concrete) — and, of course, artfully plated Italian food enjoyed with near ecstatic bliss. There are mild bits of comedy around overbearing parents and wacky culture clashes to giggle at, and many scenes of romantic or familial bliss to sigh contentedly over.
If you’re in the mood to swoon a little, weep a little and order too much Italian food on Postmates, From Scratch is a perfectly nice way to while away the weekend. It may not capture the full complexity of the characters at its center, or the experiences they’re going through. But what tear-stained love letter ever does?
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