REVIEW | "Sweetbitter" Feels Like a Microwaved Appetizer
Manhattan's best restaurant is...overrated.
A 22-year-old girl packs up her suburban life and leaves for New York with no exceptional skills, talents, ambitions...
Starz's Sweetbitter, a show adapted from Stephanie Danler's book of the same name, is perhaps the most pretentious show on TV. The book, one I have not read or care to, is most notable for its dramatization of the restaurant industry; its handling of food and the senses associated with smell and taste make for an evocative premise: A 22-year-old girl packs up her suburban life and leaves for New York with no exceptional skills, talents, ambitions, or savings—just a youthful compulsion to change things up.
The series follows in the same playful tone, a revamped Sex and the City for millennial girls and foodies; this time around, the doe-eyed prodigy with a taste for the finer things is Tess (Ella Purnell), a girl who has a penchant for staring from afar and repeating in breathy whispers, "sweet, sour, salt, bitter" as her personal mantra. She's naive to think she's found her niche and smart to have at least tried. "This is where you'll become a person," Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald)—a server who describes wine the way one would a Picasso painting—tells Tess her first night on the job; later, Tess becomes a typical 20-year-old and talks about her love of John Lennon. Tess has nothing to say most of the time, evidenced by her starstruck demeanor in the restaurant—you're led to believe the taste of an oyster, however, catapults her newfound passion for bussing tables and eating strangers' leftovers over the trash.
Then there are the supporting acts, the kitchen's inflated staff who are all equally infuriating to watch: Jake ( Tom Sturridge), TV's corniest bad boy archetype (imagine Twilight's Edward (Robert Pattinson) as a server who un-ironically wears one small hoop earring); Sasha (Daniyar), a Russian server who nicknames Tess "baby monster;" Howard (Paul Sparks), an icy manager who prides his iciness just as much as he does his menu.
There are moments where
Sweetbitter builds momentum, but they are mostly indebted to Tess's naiveté, her genuine bewilderment of everyone and everything. It's a superficial rendering of what it feels like to be young and directionless in a big city, and no matter how lackluster its depiction is, the attempt is still charming and endearing. Sweetbitter—when it actually embraces the pleasures of nightlife, good food, and beautiful people—has moments of intimate pleasure, but it's a little underprepared to be a full-course meal. Sweetbitter is a moderately satisfying coming-of-age tale, but it's hard to root for 30-something-year-olds who are all viciously competing to be the best…plate server? Danler's book captures the appeal of the restaurant industry, but Starz's adaptation forgets to season its characters with ambitions and desires outside of cocaine and serving soup.
But any NYC chef and server will tell you, the job isn't for everyone. It takes a special person to survive the night rush, to accommodate the city at its most invigorating hours. It's refreshing to see a show that depicts New York's restaurant scene, but even as it settles in, Sweetbitter is a bottle of Trader Joe's wine. It's good. But you know it could be so much better.
Shaun Harris is a poet, freelance writer, and editor published in avant-garde, feminist journals. Lover of warm-toned makeup palettes, psych-rock, and Hilton Als. Her work has allowed her to copyedit and curate content for various poetry organizations in the NYC area.
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