The small town girl in a big city trope isn’t getting any fresher. “Sweetbitter,” Starz’s new half-hour series, lacks any sort of distinctive taste. Its exploration of the restaurant world through a wide-eyed new recruit begins on a cliche and follows the expected storyline beat by beat in a slow, lugubrious lock step with plenty of movies and TV shows that have come before it. The world of fine dining feels stuffed to the brim with interesting stories or characters. However, Starz’s new show will have to find a way to refocus if it wants to give us a fun, exciting and new look at the restaurant world.
Tess (Ella Purnell) packs up the bare essentials from her boring life in Ohio and moves to New York City. “I knew if I stayed one more minute, I would blink, and ten years would go by,” Tess tells us in voiceover. Day one of her new life of self-discovery proves to Tess that life in the big city will be harder than she expected. Yet, armed with the desire to make her second chance stick, she starts looking for work. This lands her an interview as a server at an upscale restaurant in the city. Despite no previous experience, the owner, Howard (Paul Sparks) takes a chance on Tess and gives her an opportunity to start training for the job. However, on her first day, Tess learns that the world of high dining is more hectic and intimidating than she bargained for.
The show insists on being structured around Tess, rather than the kitchen. Unfortunately, the show goes out of its way to make Tess as empty as possible. She doesn’t know what she wants out of this situation. She possesses no qualities or character traits that make her a good candidate for this job. Worst, quite frankly, she never seems to want to learn this new job. Ella Purnell’s muted performance reduces Tess to being a deer in the headlights. She stares with wide-eyed confusion as someone shucks an oyster, confused how someone who works at a restaurant is able to do this. Little about Tess engenders sympathy or interest. Mainly, she epitomizes a critique of countless movies and TV where white characters are given jobs and breaks almost instantly just on the basis of them having a vague want.
If Tess is supposed to act as a vessel for which to explore an exciting new world, the new world needs to actually be exciting. The property which the show is adapted from looks at the salacious and crazy world behind fine dining, particularly the big personalities that make up the industry. Yet, the restaurant Tess walks into feels populated solely by snide former high school bullies. The characters aren’t grandiose, but merely slightly annoying. Caitlin Fitzgerald, as Simone, a know-it-all star, sparks even as her dressing down monologue couldn’t be more rote. Meanwhile, Paul Sparks’ intimidating restaurant owner, Howard, feels more meek than intimidating. The characters tell us the stakes are high in this restaurant, but we never feel it.
One of the more interesting aspects of the show is its time period. Set in 2006, this removes smartphones, social media and other modern devices from the show. The one sight gag that really works involves our lead wandering around New York using MapQuest printouts. Other than the occasional reminder, the show fails to exploit this even further. It flirts with the sense of how the lack of technological reminders can free up one’s life. However, Tess’ move alone to New York could reflect this more. What does it mean to pick up and move to the city in 2006?
“Sweetbitter” could use more sweetness and bitterness. We follow our audience cipher into this world of fine dining and the world fails to come alive. Everything from the acting to the dark, sterile art direction and cinematography robs the show of an identity. The show looks polished. However, it also feels empty.