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Starz Restaurant Drama ‘Sweetbitter’ Is an All-Around Better Show in Season 2

The series matures in its second year without losing any of the sizzle factor

Family meal at the restaurant. Left to right: Will (Evan Jonigkeit), Ari (Eden Epstein), Sasha (Daniyar), Tess (Ella Purnell), and Heather (Jasmine Matthews).

A version of this post originally appeared on August 23, 2019, in “Eat, Drink, Watch” — the weekly newsletter for people who want to order takeout and watch TV. Browse the archives and subscribe now.

Did you get caught up in Popeyes crispy chicken sandwich mania this week? I still haven’t tried it, and maybe never will, but if one magically appeared on my doorstep I would happily eat it, no questions asked. Below, I’ve got notes on the new season of Sweetbitter, plus a roundup of the week’s food-related entertainment news.

Sweetbitter is darker, weirder, and more compelling in Season 2

The crew from the restaurant, visiting a farm for the first time

It’s not always easy being a Sweetbitter fan. The Starz show, based on Stephanie Danler’s novel of the same name, is frequently dismissed by the TV snobs of the world, partially, I think, because it’s on a network that isn’t taken seriously yet, and it doesn’t have any prestige TV bonafides (although one of the stars, the terrific Caitlin FitzGerald, plays a memorable character on HBO’s Succession.) But I loved how the first season blended steamy soap opera theatrics with well-observed details about life in the Manhattan restaurant industry. And I’m happy to report that Season 2 — which just wrapped up its run on Starz last Sunday — has more characters, more sizzle, and generally more show than the first outing.

A common complaint that I heard from friends who watched the first season was that the protagonist, Tess (played by Ella Purnell), was too naive, even for a naive character. I’ve always understood this to be an intentional choice on behalf of Danler (who’s a writer/and co-creator here) and showrunner Stu Zicherman. Tess and her friends make the kind of dumb mistakes that people in their early 20s make, especially when they get their first taste of independence and start rubbing shoulders with older people who they look up to and, in some cases, lust after. It’s not easy to watch them embarrass themselves, but like many people in their early 20s, these characters primarily learn from making mistakes, and in the world of the show, these moments are essential parts of their coming of age in the restaurant world.

In these new episodes, Tess is a more confident, professional person, but her life is full of all sorts of new drama. Here, in no particular order, are some of the things I loved about this season (very minor spoilers ahead):

A bizarre love triangle gets even stranger: Bartender Jake (Tom Sturridge) and server Simone (FitzGerald) are like brother and sister, and Tess is attracted to both of them for different reasons. But once she gets close to Jake, things get very weird with Simone. In one of the most unexpected twists of the season, a visit to the library to read one of Simone’s old short stories turns Tess’s world inside out. I still don’t quite understand what the hell is going on here, but the scenes between these actors are among the best of the series.

Ari, Sasha, and Heather become three dimensional characters: In Season 2, we learn the backstories and wants of Tess’s three main friends at the restaurant — and I would happily watch a spinoff starring any of them. Learning more about these characters makes the whole world of the restaurant feel more complete, while also establishing that the show is not so much about Tess anymore, but rather her entire adopted New York family.

A clutch Sandra Bernhard cameo: The show previously never mentioned that the restaurant had a chef/owner, played by Bernhard, who spends most of her time abroad. But in the third episode she busts through the door and turns the restaurant on its head.

The plight of Santos: One of the best plots of the season involves a dishwasher, played by Rafa Beato, who inspires a change to the tip pool that completely shifts the staff dynamic at the restaurant. Wage distribution in restaurants hasn’t gotten much better since the early aughts era depicted in Sweetbitter, but the show does a great job of exploring all sides of the issue.

An ally becomes a villain: In Season 1, general manager Howard (Paul Sparks) was depicted as a stern, but generally benevolent figure to Tess and her cronies. But now, in Season 2, we see all the ways that he manipulates the staff. With his story this season — and particularly the scenes involving his protege, Will (Evan Jonigkeit) — it seems that Danler and Co. are explicitly trying to show how frequently and methodically men in the restaurant industry abuse their power.

Interpol antics: On a much lighter note, Sweetbitter is getting a jump on the early aughts nostalgia trend with a scene at a Brooklyn music hall featuring the band Interpol playing themselves. It’s perfect.

TruffleMania: In one of the more amusing sequences of the season, the chefs and servers of the restaurant go absolutely bonkers for the first white truffle shipment of the year. Like many details in Sweetbitter, this one is completely drawn from real life.

All eight episodes of Sweetbitter Season 2 are now available on Starz and its app. You can stream the whole thing in one evening, and you don’t necessarily need to know what happens in the first season to watch chapter two.

In other entertainment news…

Have a great weekend everyone. And if you’re looking for a cooking project, consider channeling your inner Ina Garten with this summer tomato panzanella recipe

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