The first episode of Sweetbitter, a new half-hour Starz drama based on Stephanie Danler’s best-selling novel of the same name, shows a rudderless young woman getting sucked into the high-stakes world of New York City restaurants.
The year is 2006, and smartphones haven’t been invented yet. Tess, played by Ella Purnell, leaves her anonymous small town for the big city, where everything is instantly more expensive and no one is particularly helpful. After selling her car for way less than she’d hoped for, Tess starts dropping off resumes all around the city, MapQuest print-out in hand. She stumbles her way through an interview at an esteemed restaurant where the manager, Howard (Paul Sparks), calls Tess’s bluff but still gives her a test run as a backwaiter.
During her first night on the job, Tess meets a forthright young waiter named Will (Evan Jonigkeit), a cryptic older server by the name of Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), and a helpful rule-breaker who goes by Jake (Tom Sturridge). Although the episode ends before Tess can make any huge mistakes on the job, it’s clear that her lack of experience will get the better of her before too long.
Since Sweetbitter is based on a popular (but divisive) novel, Team Eater thought it might make sense for an editor who had read the book to discuss the show with someone who had not, just to cover both approaches to the series. Without any further ado, here is an unedited Slack conversation between Eater director of editorial strategy Sonia Chopra (she’s read the book) and pop culture editor Greg Morabito (he hasn’t):
Sweetbitter Episode 1, “Salt”: The Eater Slack Convo
Greg Morabito Sonia, In a general sense, what did you think about the premiere episode of Sweetbitter?
Sonia Chopra: So happy to be here with my infinite wisdom about this book which I have read no fewer than three times.
GM: Three times??? Wow.
SC: Not to give anything away, but generally when I have a, um, strong opinion about a book, I like to make sure I still feel that way after a few reads. So I have to say I was NOT expecting to like the first episode — “Salt” — but I got really into it.
GM: Oh wow.
SC: It was fun and easy to follow and it seems like this story lent itself much better to the TV format than the novel. I’m very curious what you, as someone who hasn’t read the book, thinks.
GH: Well, let me say that based on some prior conversations that I’ve had with you and other members of Team Eater, I was not expecting to like the show. Also, most shows/movies about restaurants are pretty bad. But I really enjoyed the first episode of Sweetbitter both as entertainment and as something that “brings the restaurant to the screen,” so to speak.
SC: YES, 100 PERCENT.
GM: So, already, it’s over-delivering. So, Tess, the main character, she comes from some boring place to New York.
SC: Okay, can I just say that I cannot keep Tess’s name in my mind.
GM: Haha, same. I keep thinking “Tessa” for some reason. What do you think about the casting?
SC: I hope the show really develops her into a person who we are rooting for, because as a person with a weird name, I hate when people forget names and hers just keeps disappearing from my brain.
GM: Haha, I like this character and the actress, Ella Purnell, who plays her, because she’s not like a Mary Tyler Moore or someone who just wants to, like, go for the gold and “We’re going to make it after all” or whatever. She’s sort of... unclear about what she’s doing in NYC, but knows she wants to be there, which I think is relatable for a lot of young people who wind up in big cities.
SC: Yeah, she seems to really fit the character well. I’m very curious what you think about Simone and the biker-jacket guy, Jake, that she seems to have a “connection” with. And Howard, too.
GM: Oh the biker jacket guy, was he also the oyster guy?
SC: He sure was.
GM: The Chuck Bass of the show, I surmised.
SC: I literally just laughed out loud, that’s so true.
GM: I like that all the possible love interests in the show, men and women, all seem like they’re both virtuous and flawed people, and you have no idea where it’s going to end up. I love the manager. I also love the weird-but-potentially-evil server lady who can remember when it rained in Bordeaux seven years ago. Anyway, Jake is my pick for who Tess should befriend.
SC: YEAH, he comes off as a jerk when he walks in, but then he’s all cozy with Simone (the weird-but-potentially-evil server lady, as you called her) and kinda sultry to Tess in the cooler with the oysters. (By the way, can’t wait to come back to that oyster scene.) But yes — it was so fascinating to see how these characters came to life because I had VERY strong ideas of who they were/what they looked like in my mind, and they were not anything like what came.
GM: Who did not match up?
SC: I’m thinking of Simone, in particular, who comes across as much nicer to me in the show — even though you just called her potentially evil, so maybe that’s a misread on my end — than she does in the book, where she’s this like hyyyper intimidating Cool Girl who knows everything and gets what she wants and is basically untouchable. I guess that does come through in the show, too, but she has these moments of softness as well, like with the salt shakers and re-doing Tess’s hair.
GM: Yes... she comes across as very powerful, I think.
SC: In my mind, as the complete antithesis of a cool girl, I had her built up to be a monster, which isn’t fair (sorry Tess).
GM: But like, maybe, people need to keep her at arm’s length.
SC: Powerful is the right word.
GM: Interesting. I think, from a world-building point of view, it’s good that at the end of the first episode, you’re not really sure how Tess’s relationship with all of these people will evolve, but there are a bunch of possibilities. But back to the manager guy — he really did seem like a restaurant manager to me. It’s hard to explain what that energy is.
SC: You’ve worked in some important NYC restaurants, so that’s strong casting praise.
GM: Like, he’s thinking a few steps ahead of everyone? But also knows how to use people to the best of their abilities. (On a side note, in the year that this show took place, I got a job as a backwaiter at a Big Deal NYC restaurant, so there is some definite built-in nostalgia here. Loved that she had a printed out MapQuest page.)
SC: Okay, yes, I LOVED some of the details like that MapQuest page.
GM: Let’s talk about the details.
SC: There’s also that lacy-necked tank she wore, which I definitely owned (in teal!) around the same time.
GM: So, strong mid-’00s vibes throughout.
SC: Very well done, I thought. One scene I loved, speaking of details, was the one where she got blood on her clothes because of her nails. Before that, when she was biting them, I thought it was just the, like, doe-eyed midwesterner thing and I love that they tied that back together.
GM: Oh yessss. Drinking a beer and inflating an Aero-bed = another great detail.
SC: Lol yes so real. I definitely slept on an air mattress for my first week in NYC. Could you recognize any of the restaurants they shot in? I want that pineapple wallpaper.
GM: I read that they filmed this on a soundstage in Brooklyn. I couldn’t ID the restaurants in the interviews.
SC: Oh that makes me feel better **deletes Google search of pineapple wallpapered restaurants in NYC.**
GM: BUT the fake restaurant in the show completely mirrors the layout of the original Union Square Cafe, which is where Stephanie Danler worked in 2006. Like, the shape of the bar, the lowered dining room with the low ceiling, the balcony overlooking the bar room — exactly the same layout as USC 1.0. So, kudos to the set designers.
SC: All around very impressive. Were there any details that fell flat for you? When Tess got the tour of the kitchen from Will and he showed her the freezer and said, “Watch out, there’s a dead pig in there” (paraphrasing), I was like: Okay nobody would ever tell you that in a restaurant.
GM: Haha, so true. And also he was so blasé about the different stations. “Hot stuff over there, cold stuff there. Watch out, this will burn you.” None of the details really stuck out to me as off. The staff seemed a little too mean to Tess, but then I thought maybe that’s actually realistic for the time period. I thought the scene with Neely, the old woman, was strange and uncomfortable, but effective.
SC: Yeah we hear so much about what it’s like to be a woman working in a restaurant; that felt par-for-the-course for me. The “you have nice nails” convo with the manager, Howard, worked better in the book, I thought. Here it makes him feel very awkward (Do you agree?), and in the novel it makes her feel awkward, which felt more accurate.
GM: Ah yes I agree with that.
SC: ALSO the oyster montage where she tastes all the salt... Was a bit dramatique for me.
GM: It was ridiculous.
GM: So campy.
SC: Be cool, Tess.
GM: Like, she instantly flashed to black-and-white shots of, like, the ocean and a passionate kiss, hinting at an awakening to come.
SC: Love an awakening. Have you ever had a food flash you back to a moment like that?
GM: Never! You?
SC: Same! But hey, I’m into the awakening that’s to come, I guess.
GM: Considering the amount of stuff that could’ve gone wrong in this pilot, I will overlook this one weird five-second moment.
SC: Very fair. There was one quote that I wrote down that I think I liked at the time but looking back at it, it feels maybe pretentious. “You have gotten by on charm for so long that you haven’t developed character.”
GM: Yes, very much something no real human would say.
SC: Powerful Simone to naive Tess.
GM: Like if a coworker said that do you, it would be a record scratch moment.
SC: I’m picturing you looking up from your desk at me and saying this, back when we used to sit diagonally from each other. I truly cannot imagine it.
GM: Haha, would be monumentally weird. So the other thing I was surprised about was where they... ended the pilot. She hasn’t dropped a plate yet. She hasn’t even really screwed up yet.
SC: That’s so true — I was expecting it to happen when they re-fired the soup. All she did was not fill salt shakers, and Simone saved the day.
GM: Another weird thing she did. Like, if she’s so obsessed with wine and being the most senior person there, she would probably never do that. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Simone is a mystery.
SC: An enigma.
GM: Yes. So if you did not have to watch this for any work-related reason, would you be tuning into episode two?
SC: You know what, Greg. I probably would watch episode two.
SC: Just to see what happens! I was not expecting to get invested in this show, and I want to see if it can keep it up.
GM: I truly was not expecting for either of us to get invested in this show.
SC: Very much agree.
GM: So, I’m tuning in, although in an ideal scenario, I would maybe be watching this whole show in, like, an afternoon, instead of week-to-week.
SC: Yes, in my mind when this show was announced, I just assumed it was a movie. But you’re right, it’s going to be so good for binge-watching.
GM: Fingers crossed it will stay this good, but who knows?
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