Review: Sweetbitter 1×1 (US: Starz)

All the fun of fine dining

Sweetbitter

In the US: Sundays, Starz

Coming of age stories about a young person’s love for a particular profession – and their discovery that the path to achieving their dream might be rocky – normally have two facets:

  1. The young person actually wants to be a member of that profession
  2. The obstacles on their path are partly a cautionary tale to put people off from their dream.

Starz, the network behind the latest ‘dream job’ drama Sweetbitter, has form for this itself with the ballet-and-sex drama Flesh and Bone. Watch that and you’d be surprised that anyone would want to be a ballet dancer at all.

But Sweetbitter largely throws both of the two main genre tenets away – at least in the first episode. Based on the novel of the same name by showrunner Stephanie Danler, it sees Ella Purnell (Ordeal by Innocence) playing a midwesterner who decides to quit her small town backwater before she blinks and 10 years of her life disappears through doing nothing. Seizing the day (and, given it’s 2006, a print-out from Mapquest), she heads to New York with little more than a car to her name. When she starts looking for a job, however, she ends up trying the only thing she’s got any experience of at all – waitressing.

Unfortunately, in the swanky world of New York restaurants, having served in a diner doesn’t normally get you through an interview where you’re asked, “What are the five noble grapes of Bordeaux?” Nevertheless, Paul Sparks (Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards) is willing to give her a trial period. Training at first seems minimal and a baptism by fire, with Purnell expected – yet also not expected – to hold the hands of dementing diners who only come once a week for a bit of company, as well as anything else that comes her away. Everything’s a little too much for her at first, but soon ice queen Caitlin FitzGerald (Masters of Sex) is taking her under wing and showing her where the mops are.

And very quickly, Purnell begins to love her new job – and the people around her.

Sweetbitter

Chefless

In contrast to most dramas set in restaurants, Sweetbitter is all about the waiting staff, rather than the chefs, who barely get a namecheck. There are hierarchies, in-fighting and more, but largely the show gives us a sense of growing camaraderie, rather than back-biting, professionals who have no time for amateurs but who respect someone willing to learn. It’s also a paean to fine dining and bottles of wine that cost $200 a throw. And while it’s not glamorous, it’s an appealing atmosphere for those who can cope with the workload.

So far. But problematically (for me at least), future episodes are billed as depicting “a world of drugs, drinking, love, lust, dive bars and fine dining”, which is where we start to return to the genre clichés I mentioned at the beginning.

But at the same time, the show highlights its own problems even within the first episode, when FitzGerald tells Purnell that she’s always been able to get away with being charming, so has never had to develop character. In other words, Purnell is boring. She may have run away from home in search of adventure, but she doesn’t know what to do with her life and spends most of the first episode being pretty reactive and unassertive. FitzGerald is right – she may have charm, but she lacks any real spark.

Which leaves everyone else to be more interesting. Not hugely interesting yet, since Purnell is the focus of the first episode, but there are sparks there, particularly with Sparks, that could be kindled in later episodes. Just not in Purnell.

All of which – together with the synopsis for later episodes – makes me wonder if I’ll watch later episodes. It seems fine and life working in the ‘front of house’ of a restaurant isn’t usually the focus of a drama, making it novel viewing at the least. But it could do with being more interesting, and not by adding sex, drugs and rock and roll.