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The vivid love story is the best kind of tearjerker
Fall might be the best season to dive into a weepy romance. Think about it: It's a good time to wrap yourself up in a big, soft comfort blanket, the leaves falling off the trees suddenly feel like a moody metaphor for life, and you can wear a cozy knit sweater that will instantly absorb all your tears so no one has to know that you were sobbing so hard at fictional characters that you literally could not see your TV screen. Chunky knits are versatile, and don't you forget it.
It's a theory that will certainly be put to the test with Netflix's Zoe Saldaña-led limited series From Scratch, which is a weepy romance through and through. That might sound like a knock, but as a fan of the romance genre, I promise you it is not. How many series have never clicked because they were attempting to be something they had no business being or were trying to be too many things at once? One of From Scratch's greatest strengths is that it knows exactly what it is. It knows people are pressing play in order to escape, to get swept away, to be moved, and that's what it delivers. It's true, if you don't like weepy romances, From Scratch is not the show for you. But if you're even a small fan of the genre, you are in for a treat. Well, a "treat" that will make you sob into your chunky knit, but a treat nonetheless.
From Scratch is an eight-episode limited series based on actress and author Tembi Locke's 2019 best-selling memoir From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home. (If you're trying to watch the series with no previous knowledge of Locke's story, now's the time to look away — you've been warned!) Locke's memoir chronicles her life with her late husband, Sicilian chef Saro Gullo, whom she met during study abroad in Italy. It's a story about their great love, it's a story about grief, and it's a story about building a home with people in ways you could've never imagined.
The series adaptation is created by Locke and her sister, Attica Locke, also the showrunner; the Locke sisters write several of the episodes, too. There are a couple of advantages to the creative team behind the series being so close to the source material. The first is that there is an obvious love and care for this story and these characters woven into the show — Locke's TV counterpart is law student-turned-artist Amy (Saldaña), and Gullo becomes aspiring chef Lino (Eugenio Mastrandrea), but the broad strokes of their story remain the same. Sure Amy and Lino, who literally bump into each other in the street while Amy is studying in Florence, face unthinkable hardships together, but the tragedy never feels gratuitous or exploitative. The show takes time to make sure both Amy and Lino are more than that tragedy, and it takes time to celebrate their joy. You can easily imagine a version of this story that dials up the emotional manipulation by hammering home the sadness without any type of catharsis, but From Scratch wisely never hesitates to cut the sadness with something funny or sweet or awkward. Don't get me wrong: From Scratch, especially once you get into the second half of the season, is unbelievably sad — was I still crying about it long after the finale ended? That's between me and my couch, thank you — but the writers take care to offer relief.
The second advantage to the Locke sisters telling this familiar story is perhaps the more important one: It lends itself to some real specificity in the characters. That specificity is what sets the show apart in a genre that at times is just riddled with clichés. Now, there are certainly still clichés in both plot and dialogue (there's a lot of wistful talk about dreams and living a big life, and eventually you might find yourself rolling your eyes a bit). The first episode, which is easily the weakest of the eight, is the most generic. Each episode feels like a specific chapter in Amy and Lino's story, sometimes jumping a year or several years in between, and the first details how they end up together, very closely following the rom-com formula. But any time the story wades too deep into those types of clichés, it's buoyed by the one-two punch of the supporting characters — whose personalities aren't simply in service of the mains — and the stellar cast portraying them.
This would typically be the moment in the review when I would single out one or two actors for giving a performance that rises above the rest, but I'm sorry, I can't pick one or two. From Scratch is so well cast; don't make me do it! Everyone is great! Danielle Deadwyler gets several moving moments as Amy's older sister, Zora, whose life is constantly overshadowed by her sister's drama. Amy and Zora's tough Texas lawyer father, Hershel, is played by Keith David, who gets a nice arc as he warms up to Lino. Kellita Smith plays Amy's mother (and Hershel's ex-wife), Lynn, who is attempting to reconnect with her daughters and is working through some real baked-in bitterness toward her ex and his second wife, Maxine (Judith Scott), and both Smith and Scott do a lot with the few scenes they have that rely on our understanding of a backstory we never see.
On Lino's side of the family, we meet his parents, Giacomo (Paride Benassai) and Filomena (Lucia Sardo), who are farmers with strict traditions in a small Sicilian community. When we first meet Lino, his father has already disowned him for running off to Florence to pursue his cooking dreams, and much of the series is about Lino and Giacomo mending that broken relationship. Benassai will break your heart multiple times, and Sardo, too, gets to do some great things in the final episode. There are no weak links here, which at times lends itself to the feeling that the supporting cast is underutilized, especially in moments when the main story lulls. I mean, give me Lynn and Maxine being passive-aggressive toward one another over Amy dealing with artists at the gallery where she works any day.
But fans of this genre will know that any romance is only as good as its central couple. So what of our Amy and Lino? They're easy to fall in love with, for sure. Saldaña and Mastrandrea have a natural, lived-in chemistry and are believable in every stage of Amy and Lino's relationship. In lesser hands, these two characters could easily become over-the-top or melodramatic, but Saldaña and Mastrandrea hit all the emotional notes over the decade or so Amy and Lino are together — the sexiness, the bickering, the deep love, the anger, the heartbreak — at just the right pitch.
At times things can feel a little too romanticized — conflicts are resolved a bit too neatly, some obstacles aren't examined deeper than a surface level, and some of the rougher parts of illness get glossed over with a sheen of beauty and peace that, for people who have experienced something similar, might make it feel like the show has fastened on rose-colored glasses. But isn't that sometimes the point of settling into a romance? A little magic even in the face of heartbreak? You can't fault From Scratch for leaning into that, and thankfully, because its cast of characters are so endearing — seriously, you will miss spending time with them when it's all over — you won't have to feel bad when you lean into it, too.
Premieres: Friday, Oct. 21 on Netflix
Who's in it: Zoe Saldaña, Eugenio Mastrandrea, Danielle Deadwyler, Keith David, Kellita Smith, Judith Scott, Lucia Sardo, Paride Benassai, Roberta Rigano
Who's behind it: Tembi Locke, Attica Locke
For fans of: This Is Us, cozy tearjerkers
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8