On the new season of their Starz restaurant drama Sweetbitter, creator Stephanie Danler and showrunner Stu Zicherman decided to switch things up a bit. Whereas the first season primarily followed Tess, an ingenue played by Ella Purnell, on her journey through the Manhattan dining world, the new episodes shift the focus to other staffers at the unnamed restaurant at the heart of the show. Some new characters — including an intimidating chef/restaurateur played by Sandra Bernhard — get thrown into the mix. And many of the main players go through big changes that build on their experiences from the first season.
In a TV landscape full of prestige dramas and culinary docuseries, it’s unusual to find a show that mixes soap opera sizzle with keen observations about restaurant life. This unusual duality might explain why Sweetbitter wasn’t a breakout hit when it premiered last summer, especially considering that Starz has never been a destination for food lovers. But the show managed to pull off this tricky balancing act, and in Season 2, Sweetbitter will dig even deeper into the power dynamics that exist in kitchens and dining rooms, particularly between men in management positions and female employees.
Before the Season 2 premiere in New York last month, Eater caught up with Danler — who also wrote the novel the show is based on — and Zicherman to chat about mapping out the second season, the influence of the #MeToo movement, and their goals for recreating an early aughts version of New York City.
In terms of world building, how did you approach the second season of Sweetbitter? Did you want to expand the scope of the show at all?
Stu Zicherman: We almost thought of Season 1 as a six-episode pilot. When we came into Season 2, we were excited because it felt like we could start making the series, and the series, to us, is more expansive than just Tess. We cast all these other amazing actors and we wanted to start telling their stories. You’ll see in Season 2, virtually every episode gets into other characters, and guest stars showing up.
Stephanie Danler: I’m so proud of last season. But when I signed on to the television series, what I wanted to do was push beyond the book. I think the reason that a restaurant is such an interesting ecosystem is the number of different people you have under one roof on a given evening. When you’re introducing Tess, when you’re trying to build a heroine who’s on a serious existential journey about who she’s going to become, you don’t necessarily get to explore all those avenues, especially in only six episodes.
There’s an episode I’m really proud of about wage distribution, which doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s a Paul Sparks episode — who plays [general manager] Howard — about tips, and it’s brilliant. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and that’s something that you can’t do in a first-person novel, when you’re so intimately tied to her journey.
I find Tess to be an interesting character because sometimes she makes big, foolish mistakes, but somehow, you still want to root for her. What are the challenges of writing that character? And where do you see Tess headed this season?
SD: I think what was challenging about Season 1, and challenging with the book, is that she was being acted upon because she’s new. She had to keep her head down and absorb information. And if you look at the first 50 pages of the book, she barely says a word. This season, we’re past her being new, and she gets to be active and make decisions and say, “I might trust you,” or “I don’t like you today,” or “I’m going to try this.” That’s when a character becomes truly dynamic. I actually think the limbo stage of arriving somewhere, where you’re just watching, is so fascinating. But for a television series to grow and a character to grow, they have to start making the decisions that drive the show.
SZ: In some ways she could be construed as not being a strong person. And that was frustrating for us, because she’s new and she needs to absorb things. The show doesn’t have the benefit of what the book has, which is being told from the future. So we’re in it with her. We made a very conscious decision to start this season with a Tess who is making decisions.
SD: We jumped forward a little bit, so she’s embedded.
You were filming the first season in 2017, right as all many of the bad actors in the restaurant industry were being exposed. Did the #MeToo movement influence how you put together Season 2?
SD: Absolutely. If you’ve read the book or if you haven’t, Howard is already a predator in the style of Ken Friedman. That’s because I was writing about the restaurant industry at a very specific moment. So it wasn’t even called an “abuse of power,” it was called a “general manager.” And with the show we decided to move him back and look at: How does he become that person? In Season 1, there’s a hint of something, and in this season, you see the slippery slope. It’s these subtle abuses of power that start to snowball.
Did the performances influence the writing at all?
SD: So much. We learn from our actors constantly. Obviously, I’d never worked in television before, so I learned from Stu to talk to the artists and ask them questions. If you want to know what it’s like to go through a sexual awakening at 22 years old, ask the 22-year-old actress.
SZ: When we came into Season 2, [we asked]: Where are the interesting dynamics? Which actors have chemistry? What are their voices? What stories can we tell? We got to know their voices and we started to write for them and toward them. We built an entire story around Howard and [server] Simone [played by Caitlin FitzGerald]. We only had them in two or three scenes together alone in Season 1, but the scene where we shot them in Howard’s office was so magnetic we thought we needed more than that.
The first season was full of small details that effectively evoked Manhattan in the mid-aughts. Why are those details important to you in the grand scheme of things?
SD: I think that everyone freezes New York at the moment they move to it. If you move here in 1990 or 1972, that’s always your New York. And then it changes immediately, because that’s the nature of the city. So I have a really romantic idea of what things were like in 2006. When I was writing the book, I figured out it’s because the iPhone came out in 2007, and so it’s like this last analog gasp of the city — it’s pre-Uber, it’s pre-Google Maps, it’s pre- answers on your phone.
SZ: It’s pre- knowing everything. In the third episode, Tess goes over the west side where the High Line’s being built. She can’t Google it, she doesn’t exactly know where she’s going, but she just goes. You needed more courage to be a New Yorker in 2006.
SD: Less comforts, less ease. If you were stuck on 10th Avenue underneath the abandoned High Line in 2006, you weren’t going to get a cab. You had to walk a long way. There’s a little bit more of a wilderness feeling, so in that way, it’s romantic and nostalgic.
The first two episodes of Sweetbitter Season 2 premiere this Sunday, July 14 at 9 p.m. on Starz.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.