Like a well curated menu, Starz’s new dramedy Sweetbitter has something scrumptious for all tastes.
Foodies and wine lovers will swoon over luscious images and discussions of eat and drink. The mighty legions that serve us when we dine out at long last have a scripted restaurant show that honors them. Scenesters get the New York that only New Yorkers know.
And everyone can relive our own brink-of-adulthood reckoning via the show’s 22-year-old heroine Tess, winningly played by Churchill’s Ella Purnell.
Tess — the not-quite alter ego of Sweetbitter screenwriter Stephanie Danler, who also penned the bestseller on which the show is based — is a restless Midwesterner with a fruitless English degree and the sort of “anywhere but here” momentum that lands her, driftless and penniless, in New York City.
Her moxie catches the attention of self-possessed restaurant owner Howard (Paul Sparks, House of Cards), whose sink-or-swim offer to learn the trade from the bottom up lands her in the midst of an eclectic group of coworkers, including mysterious and elegant Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), flamboyant Russian immigrant Sasha (Daniyar) and sexy barback Jake (Tom Sturridge).
For Purnell, the role proved a deliciously eerie twist of fate. “I was in a super weird place in my career and in my life, and I was actually going to take some time off to re-figure out who I was and what I wanted to do,” the lovely 21-year-old Londoner says. “I’m so protective of Tess, because I feel like she is me and I am her. I could not have picked a more similar role to myself.”
For Danler — who knew firsthand that pairing a young woman’s personal evolution with the evolution of her palate would make a potent mix — Purnell’s perfection was apparent before she even said a word. “In a show where so much is going to be about observation, you want eyes that reflect the world,” Danler smiles of her star’s enormous peepers. “I saw her eyes and was like, ‘Oh my God, please be able to act.’”
And she aced the tastier hazards of the job, as well. Purnell recalls an early scene in which Tess experiences oysters, and the evocative power of taste, for the very first time. “I personally can’t eat fish, so it was a whole palaver and everyone was really stressed, and, in the end, I was like, ‘I’ll have one,’” says Purnell. “They did this big close-up, and I ate an oyster, which I am really not supposed to do, but I wanted to feel how that felt. Suddenly all the words that were in the script that described salt, described the ocean — the sensory thing was so present.”
“We had a food stylist meeting for every episode; we had real, beautiful food,” says executive producer Stuart Zicherman (The Americans). “We’re not looking to provide food porn for our audience, because they can get that on cooking shows, but because the show is sensory, we wanted everything to feel alive and real and luscious. Every plate on every three-plate carry looks spectacular, and every time someone’s cutting something, it’s real.”
For Danler, the chance to also show restaurant work as a complex and meaningful career, and the intricate dance of talent that gets your dish to your table, meant that restaurant sets were meticulously plotted and actors trained with Danler’s former colleagues at Union Square Café.
“I was in the industry for 16 years, so it’s so deeply personal to me that it was authentic,” Danler says with a smile. “I feel this great responsibility to everyone I’ve ever worked with to not over-romanticize it, to not make it into a joke and not to over-sexualize it, either.”
FitzGerald appreciates how well Danler landed the “girl in the great big world” part, too.
“I was Tess,” FitzGerald says. “I was 22, in New York City having just graduated college, waiting tables in 2006 and trying to make my dreams happen. Reading the book felt like this surreal experience of reading my diary from that time — only well written. It feels like my life story.”
Sweetbitter, Sundays beginning May 6 at 8/7c on Starz
Author: Stephanie Danler
Published: May 2016
Art Imitates Life
Four years ago, Danler, now 34, was a waitress peddling a book about the industry she loved. A chance encounter with a publisher led to a two-book deal with Alfred A. Knopf. Danler was adamant that the televised Sweetbitter remain set in 2006, “a time before smart phones, when you had to experience life firsthand, in tactile, messy ways in order to learn.”