Sweetbitter, a half-hour drama based on Stephanie Danler’s novel of the same name, is returning to Starz on July 14 — which means that now is the perfect time to take season one of this criminally-underrated show for a spin. Although the series features a strong cast of up-and-comers, punchy writing, and a sharp eye for the details of restaurant life, it failed to generate much buzz last year among the food nerds and prestige TV connoisseurs, possibly because it airs on a network that is not yet known as a home for quality scripted series, and the source material received a mixed reactions upon its release a few years ago. But here are some reasons why Sweetbitter is worth at least an hour of your time, or maybe even three (that’s the duration of the entire first season — which means that you can watch the whole thing on Hulu in an afternoon):
1) It’s a steamy soap opera: Although it skews toward a slightly older audience, Sweetbitter definitely channels series like Melrose Place, 90210, and even Gossip Girl — all the fun shows about young, hot people hooking up behind each other’s backs. In this case, the romantic lead is Tess (Ella Purnell), a 21-year-old from Nowherseville USA who lands in New York City and quickly finds herself caught up in romantic entanglements with two foxy guys — Jake (Tom Sturidge) and Will (Evan Jonigkeit)— at the restaurant where she works. Further complicating things, Tess also develops an intense friendship (bordering on obsession) with an older server, Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), who has a mysterious connection to Jake. Although there’s a lot of other stuff going on in each episode, Danler and showrunner Stu Zicherman know when to turn up the heat.
2) The show gets all the restaurant details right: Danler famously worked at Union Square Cafe in the early 2000s, and brought service managers from that restaurant to train the cast on set — and it shows. If you’ve ever worked in a busy restaurant before, there’s a good chance you will pick up on all the little details that fill the dining room and the kitchen, particularly the way that the servers interact with each other during service. The story also mines drama out of moments that occur all the time in restaurants — from breaking a glass in the ice bin, to sneaking bites of some forbidden food in the walk-in. Despite the occasional soap opera theatrics, Sweetbitter is, perhaps, the most faithful fictional depiction of restaurant life that’s ever been put on TV.
3) It’s an early 2000s NYC nostalgia trip: The music, the clothes, the food, the restaurants, and especially the bars all convincingly evoke a slightly bygone era of New York City. Season 1’s trailer was scored to LCD Soundsystem’s “New York I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” while Season 2’s trailer (above) is set to TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” — both seminal mid-00s New York jams.
4) The production design is just slightly over-the-top: Season 1 featured the most impossibly cool East Village studio apartment ever, and the trailer for the new season includes a glimpse of a Patrick Bateman-esque condo adorned with massive horse paintings, a grand piano, and a wall-sized TV. Outside the restaurant, the production team really splashes out.
5) Brad Pitt is an executive producer. And if it’s good enough for Brad, it’s certainly good enough for you.
With so many new dramas being released across all the networks and streaming platforms, it can be easy to overlook a show like Sweetbitter, which lacks big-name stars and treads territory (fictional TV restaurants) that hasn’t produced many hits over the years. And when the dust has settled, it likely will not be remembered as one of the great masterpieces of the Golden Era of TV. But the Starz drama is a solid choice if you’re looking for something that’s both entertaining and a bit cheeky to watch while you unwind, especially if you’ve worked as part of a front-of-the-house team before.
And, of course, if you like giant horse paintings in yuppie mega-lairs, there is no finer series on television.
• Sweetbitter [Starz]
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