The chaos and drama of restaurant life get a side of heated sexual tension in the Starz adaption of Stephanie Danler's novel.
The premiere of Sweetbitter opens with a familiar scene: A young woman, carrying little more than a backpack, leaves a note on the kitchen table in her quiet house in the middle of goodness knows where. She gets in her car and starts driving—ending up in New York City. Presumably, she’s hoping to escape the dead-end monotony of her small town life. She craves the two cornerstones of youth, adventure and romance, but mostly she wants to feel, for once, that is she is not an outsider.
This is our first taste of Tess, the naïve-but-determined protagonist of the Starz adaption of the Stephanie Danler novel. We don’t know where she came from or whom she left behind, but it doesn’t matter because Tess is taking control of her life, reinventing herself. The past is irrelevant.
No one can build a new life without money though, so Tess gets a job as a waitress. The energy of the kitchen invigorates Tess and the fact that cute guys who wear leather jackets and smoke cigarettes populate the wait staff doesn’t hurt, either. Tess—though not a good waitress by any stretch of the imagination—cautiously begins to feel as though she has found a potential family, a place where outcasts and misfits are no longer isolated by society. They’ve created their own society.
There’s plenty here to tempt viewers who want an insider’s view of the restaurant industry: The intimate banter of family meal, the hectic energy of the dinner rush, the constant swinging of the doors between the kitchen and the dining room, the chaos of the kitchen as the waiters scoop up plates without dropping anything or bumping into each other. It’s all there—through the eyes of an awe-struck and intimidated Tess.
But this isn’t necessarily a show about the ins-and-outs of life working at a restaurant. Sure, you’ll get your fair share of melodrama between waiters—if Sweetbitter is to be believed, restaurants are staffed by hard-drinkers who use the kitchen as their own personal dating app—but the true appeal of the show is in watching Tess struggle find her place among this cliquish group.
Right away, Tess is intrigued by her colleagues, who seem so comfortable in this fast and exciting world she’s been thrust into: She gazes with a mixture of longing and admiration at one of the restaurant’s most seasoned waiters, Simone, who seems to her both poised and wise. She’s also drawn to one of the bartenders, Jake, whose enigmatic, brooding character is immediately attractive to her. But where does Tess fit in? The premiere of the show introduces a woman who is deeply unsure of herself but brazenly enters unfamiliar territory without much of a plan except to try.
Sweetbitter drops viewers into that moment of indecision when you can either decide to get your life moving—even if the direction you chose to move is scary, even dangerous—or stay still. Tess chooses to move. It’s a necessary risk. What appeals to Tess about working in the restaurant is not the expensive wine, or the high energy, or the raucous after parties, but rather the feeling that her days have meaning. Sadly, it's not common to find many shows on television these days that are very interested in exploring the interiority of a woman who is just trying to figure who she is, and what she wants. Right from the start, Sweetbitter is ready to go on that journey with Tess.
Sweetbitter premieres Sunday, May 6 at 8 p.m. on Starz.