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The drama never quite lives up to its own potential
[The following contains minor spoilers from Stephanie Danler's novel Sweetbitter.]
When Stephanie Danler's debut novelSweetbitterwas released in 2016, it immediately garnered praise for the author's exquisite prose and its provocative take on a modern coming-of-age story, so it wasn't surprising when Starz decided to make a TV show out of it. The six-episode first season of the adaptation, on which Danler serves as an executive producer, will finally premiere Sunday, May 6, bringing Danler's intoxicating portrayal of New York City to a whole new audience.
The story is inspired by Danler's experience as a backwaiter at the Union Square Café, an upscale Manhattan restaurant where the author worked during her first year in New York City. But while Danler drew from her own experience, viewers should be hesitant to conflate Danler's life with that of Sweetbitter's unknowable heroine.
Having left behind her life in Ohio, seemingly on a whim and yet with a sense of inevitability, 22-year-old Tess (Miss Peregrine's Ella Purnell) arrives in New York City in 2006 with a determination to be important but lacking any direction as to how to do so. Soon enough, Tess lands the opportunity to train as a backwaiter at a prestigious Manhattan restaurant where she's exposed to sensations and experiences that quickly overwhelm and eventually consume her. From trying her first oyster to snorting her first line of cocaine, Tess throws herself wholeheartedly into this vivid, chaotic community with little consideration of the consequences of her actions and without the briefest pause for self-reflection.
Although she begins her journey as lost as can be, Tess quickly acquires an extraordinary level of knowledge about luxury food and wine and proves deft at liaising with the restaurant's high-end guests (as Tess is instructed, they're always guests, never customers). As the previously sheltered Tess -- who had only prior cooked food that you simply add water to -- refines her flavor palate, she slowly begins to refine her emotional palate as well, learning to distinguish the difference between people and experiences that help you grow and those that hold you back, or worse yet, have the power to transform you into someone else entirely. But the process for Tess is almost painfully slow and never fully resolved, which can be maddening. However, it is also one of the story's most intriguing points.
In the novel, this all culminates in Tess' final realization that somewhere along the way she became reliant on her physical attractiveness as both the best marker for her self-worth and her most useful skill. After hitting rock bottom, she explains that her life has been built "upon the assumption that most men wanted to f--- me," and in doing so, Tess says, "I had made myself so small ... that I was unrecognizable."
Danler expertly exhibits the scale to which Tess' complicity in her own objectification led to a loss of intelligible identity by keeping Tess' name unknown for the majority of the novel. Instead, we know her by her beautifully written inner voice and the nicknames imposed upon her by her new co-workers -- Baby Monster, Little One, Skip -- a clever trick that is utilized, although to lesser success, in the Starz series. (An important reminder that what feels natural and poetic in a novel can easily come off as contrived onscreen.)
Danler's ability to capture Tess' desperate quest for an identity and the sensuality of food -- and even beyond that, the emotions and complexities that exist within a single flavor -- is extraordinary in the book, a feat made more impressive by the way she writes about these sensations without a drip of pretension. But sadly, in the transition from the page to screen, so much of this enchantment is lost. While Danler's prose immerses the reader inside this world, allowing them to experience the vast array of sensations right alongside Tess in a way that is both tantalizing and dizzying, the series never succeeds in diving beneath the surface of these experiences. The direction of the restaurant scenes in particular -- which rely heavily on heightened sound, rapid quick-cuts and close-ups of food being prepared and plated -- fails to capture the eroticism of the kitchen that seduces the impressionable Tess. And given that Hannibalwas able to make the titular character's preparation of human flesh both salivating and sensual, there's no excuse for how Sweetbitter's own depiction of food never rises above bland.
Without the heightened sensory appeal of the restaurant or insights into Tess' inner monologue, there's very little to make viewers sympathize with her self-destructive commitment to this particular restaurant beyond the fact that she's young, easily influenced and aimless. While those reasons may be enough for some, this lack of understanding leads to a lack of believability about why this job, this restaurant, and these people are so important to Tess' sense of self (particularly since there isn't exactly a dearth of similar luxury restaurants in Manhattan with equally eccentric and glamorous staff for her to idealize and mimic). Further compounding these issues is the series' decision to have the first season cover just two weeks, which is such a small glimpse into Tess' overall arc; viewers with no knowledge of the source material are then left with few insights as to where the show is going or what it's trying to say.
By opening up the world to encompass more than just Tess' warped perspective, and by sizing the scope of the story down to just her first two weeks of the job, the stakes of the first season become impossibly low. In the adaptation process, Sweetbitter goes from being an incisive take on the way women learn to value themselves into a visually stunning but somewhat superficial binge about a privileged white girl who wants to land a desirable restaurant job. Without laying enough early groundwork to clarify the tragic depth of Tess' total blankness of self, or the psychology driving this surrender to outside whims, the dramatic weight of the storytelling falls flat despite several outstanding performances.
Ella Purnell is absolutely riveting as Tess; she alone may be reason enough to watch. UnREAL and Rectify star Caitlin FitzGerald also continues her streak of success as Simone, the restaurant's alluring sommelier who becomes somewhat of a mother figure to Tess, which is not to say that she serves as a good influence. Simone's carefully controlled sense of superiority and emotional distance is wielded as a weapon by FitzGerald, whose performance helps viewers to buy into Simone's absolute influence over Tess, as well as the restaurant's resident bad boy and the object of Tess' uncontrollable infatuation, Jake (On the Road's Tom Sturridge).
There's also something magical about looking back at this time in New York; it was right on the cusp of the cell phone boom, when it was easy to lose one's self in the city, both literally and figuratively. However, some of this magic is dampened by the characters' insistence on talking about the magic of New York -- something real New Yorkers rarely do, or at least only do with added caveats like "but the trains!"
It's unfortunate that Sweetbitter fails to rise to the heights of the novel, but then again, so few adaptations do. By setting the first season completely in Tess' honeymoon period with the restaurant, it's simply too small of a snapshot of Tess' larger arc to get an understanding of what it was that made the original text such a success. Instead, this quick glance distorts your perception of what Sweetbitter is all about, replacing the emotional intricacies and wells of darkness with expository dialogue and underdeveloped, quirky side characters. Maybe this was an active choice, meant to destabilize viewers once the series begins to dig deeper into the emotional turmoil of Tess' journey in future seasons, but for now it just feels like a missed opportunity.
Sweetbitter premieres Sunday, May 6 on Starz.