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Restaurant Drama ‘Sweetbitter’ Is Sadly Shallow — Check Please

  • Ella Purnell in “Sweetbitter.” MUST CREDIT: Macall Polay, Starz



The Washington Post
Sunday, May 06, 2018

If toxic masculinity is coming in for extra scrutiny these days, then it’s only fair to send back a cold plate of naive femininity, a pernicious and outdated girl-in-the-big-city narrative that rejects any notion that a young adult can steer her own destiny and manage to get hired for a challenging job without it seeming like some kind of damn miracle.

Sweetbitter, a six-episode, half-hour dramedy that premiered Sunday on Starz, is an insultingly shallow riff on some of the usual sweltering-kitchen tropes. Created and produced by Stephanie Danler, and based on her 2016 novel (which itself was loosely based on Danler’s experience working in a restaurant), the show is set in 2006, when, one supposes, everything was different — the devil was still wearing Prada and sex was still part of the city. You remember.

Ella Purnell stars as Tess, an Ohio native with a fresh English degree, who follows an inner voice telling her to move jobless to New York to see what fate has in store.

She’s white and really, really pretty, so fear not: After subletting a room, Tess lucks into a tryout at a well-regarded Manhattan restaurant, even though she has no experience and isn’t ready for the craziness, the stress. Dishes crash, sous-chefs curse and customers wince. Then, after hours, colleagues flirt, carouse and hook up — a human-resources disaster area that’s seriously and stylishly portrayed, yet one’s interest quickly wanes. Even the food looks merely OK.

It’s a half-star rating all around, passable but nothing special, a low-stakes story with nobody worth rooting for. The ensemble cast — including Paul Sparks (The Night Of; House of Cards) as a demanding manager; Tom Sturridge as a bad-boy bartender; assorted others as misfit waiters and kitchen staff — are forced to serve their lines from an unappealingly predictable menu.

One standout is Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex; UnReal) as Simone, the queen of the wait staff who seems to embody Tess’ ideal of the complete New York woman, from her precise table service and broad knowledge of wine down to her East Village apartment filled with good books, jazz albums and a claw foot bathtub in the center of the living room. Though Simone seems to have it all, Tess soon figures out that she suffers just as exquisitely as she thrives. It’s all part of the same package.

And because there are only six episodes, which cover Tess’ first week on the job, that’s all you get. The idea might have been to leave us hungry for more, but the more likely result is a signal for the check.