Stephanie Danler on Why Television Needs 'Sweetbitter' Right Now
When Stephanie Danler published Sweetbitter in 2016—the story of a woman in her early twenties named Tess, who finds a job working as a waitress and gets thrown head first into the chaotic, messy world of the restaurant industry—it was an instant hit: Readers ate Tess up—her romantic misadventures collided with the chaos of the kitchen to create an electric coming-of-age story. On May 6, Starz will premiere a six-episode run of Sweetbitter, which Danler helped adapt for the screen. The show effortlessly captures the frenetic, and what Danler calls “sensual,” energy of a restaurant kitchen, but what makes it especially urgent right now is that it puts complex women at the center of the restaurant world.
“Women should have the permission to be superficial and funny and angry and confused and joyful, giddy, even—we experience all of those things within a 24-hour period,” she explains to Food & Wine.
Tess, whether she’s so anxious she’s dropping plates during service, or confident enough to sleep with one of her co-workers a week into the job, exemplifies that inherently complicated nature Danler describes, fitting into neither the promiscuous or passive woman trope.
One of the most compelling relationships in the series also focuses on women: Simone, the restaurant’s most seasoned waitress, takes Tess under her wing. A mentor relationship between two women is uncommon on mainstream television, but it was important for Danler to bring that dynamic to life.
“It’s a common relationship in real life, and people haven’t always found it interesting, because it’s a relationship between two women, but it’s those relationships between women that end up shaping us,” she says. “There’s a complicated maternal longing there. Tess is sort of metaphorical orphan.”
That surrogate family relationship is central to Sweetbitter and ends up defining how almost all of the characters relate to each other, especially in the context of a restaurant, where working relationships tend to be so much more intimate.
“We assume that they are estranged from their families, by distance, if not by emotion, and immediately, they all start looking to recreate those roles—the father, the mother, the kid brother,” Danler explains. “Unfortunately, that relationship, even in families, can be complicated, and can be sometimes toxic.”
While Tess’s character does struggle for most of this story to feel not only included but loved, as a member of the restaurant’s family, Danler fully embraces the inevitable sexual tension that sprouts up when people are working so closely.
“I think it’s a really sensual environment,” Danler says of working in a restaurant. “I think consuming food is very physical and intimate. A bunch of attractive people working in close quarters, with alcohol, is always a recipe for bad behavior.”
In recent months, however, the sexual dynamics of restaurants have come under scrutiny, a reckoning that is long overdue. Mario Batali and Ken Friedman—to name just a few perpetrators of inexcusable behavior toward women—have both stepped down from their restaurant empires. The release of the show feels especially timely, as more allegations continue to rock the industry, and Danler thinks that Sweetbitter “naturally” addresses issues of sexual politics.
“In the book and in this season of the show that we’ve given you, consensual flirtation, to drunken sex that you regret the next day, to microaggressions of misogyny, to full-on abuse of power are on display,” she says. “That is very real to this industry, which has needed an overhaul for decades.”
Danler hoped to create an “authentic” look at how young women working a new job—not just in the restaurant industry—can struggle to navigate exactly how appropriate, consensual, healthy boundaries are formed. But in the end, Danler’s true focus is on Tess, bringing the experiences—joyful, frustrating, triumphant—of young women on the verge of adulthood and independence, to the forefront. It’s a story that is rarely told, that needs to be told more often, and louder, and to more people.
“I hope people just see how honest it is,” she says. “There are a lot of fairy tales and romanticized New York shows, and a lot of chefs yelling in restaurant shows. That’s not our show. What it is, is really honest about this young woman’s journey, and about her quest for family.”
Sweetbitter premieres Sunday, May 6 at 8 p.m. on Starz.