Sweetbitter, Stephanie Danler’s best-selling novel about a young woman navigating the New York restaurant world, makes the jump to the small screen this weekend in the form of a half-hour drama on Starz. Hollywood doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to shows about restaurants, but Sweetbitter might just be the one that succeeds where others have failed. Danler is the creator and head writer of this new series, the cast is full of talented up-and-comers, and Stu Zicherman — a veteran of The Americans — is the showrunner.
Here are five things to know about Sweetbitter before its premiere this Sunday, May 6, at 8 p.m.:
1) It aims for authenticity. Danler and the producers took a number of steps to ensure that the scenes in the kitchen and the dining room would look like the real deal. “If the director wanted to put the camera someplace, but it would block the flow of service, we wouldn’t put the camera there,” Danler tells Eater. “We were very loyal to restaurant logic. There was me, there was a front-of-house consultant that I worked with at Union Square Cafe, and a back-of-house consultant who was a chef at Union Square Cafe. It took a small army in order to enforce it all.”
2) It’s about people, not food or restaurants. Despite all the efforts to create a realistic restaurant setting, Danler wanted the focus of the show to be on the main character, Tess (played by Ella Purnell), and all the people she meets in this strange new world. “The number one thing that Stu and I were very aware of is that we didn’t want it to be a restaurant show; we wanted it to be a character show,” Danler explains. “And so the restaurant is a character. It is a very colorful, lively backdrop. But the show is really about an emotional state, and so you’ll notice that it’s actually relatively light on the food porn.”
3) It’s a period piece. Like the book, the show is set 12 years in the past, and the creators never considered updating it to the present day because that time period plays an important role in the story. “The show is really about experience, and 2006 is the last time our relationship to experience [isn’t] changed by smartphones,” Danler remarks. “This girl doesn’t move to New York City with 15,000 Instagram followers and an idea of what’s waiting for her. It’s possible for her to get lost. It’s possible for her to be alone — truly alone. And it’s possible for her to discover things in the city.”
4) It’s not a fairy tale. Unlike many fictional stories about young people moving to New York City, Tess has a fairly rough time finding her place in the world. “I think a lot of television is about aspirational lifestyle... and we worked really hard with Sweetbitter to work against that,” Danler says. “The city is beautiful and the food is beautiful, but also the restaurant has its ugly pockets and its edges, and the city is hard and lonely. So I really hope whether people love it or hate it, I hope they see how honest it is — especially Tess.“
5) The story has a thematic connection to #MeToo. The show was in production right as reports of widespread sexual misconduct in the restaurant industry came to light, and now it might help some viewers continue the conversation about workplace behavior. “We were talking about #MeToo the entire time,” Danler explains. “Although this book existed pre-#MeToo, it really displays the entire spectrum of sexual politics in the workplace from consensual flirtation to accidental drunken hook-ups to full abuse of power.“ Danler also notes that “these boundaries have been blurry and disrespectful for so long, so it feels extremely topical.“
Stay tuned for a recap of the first episode on Monday, followed by a discussion of the show in the Eat, Drink, Watch Facebook group.