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'Sweetbitter' review: Restaurant drama doesn't satisfy

The Starz show offers some sensory pleasures, but it's ultimately superficial.

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Starz's "Sweetbitter" stars Ella Purnell as Tess. Photo Credit: Starz/Christopher Saunders

THE SERIES "Sweetbitter"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 8:02 p.m. on Starz

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Tess (Ella Purnell) arrives in New York from the Midwest to pursue a career in . . . well, she's not quite sure what she plans to do, but needs a job and fast. She lands a job at a high-end Manhattan restaurant where owner-restaurateur Howard (Paul Sparks) has assembled a top-notch crew inside and outside the kitchen. They include Will (Evan Jonigkeit), Sasha (Daniyar), Ariel (Eden Epstein) and the mysterious, alluring Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is first among equals. Working the bar is Jake (Tom Sturridge) who instantly intrigues Tess. This is based on Stephanie Danler's 2016 bestseller about her life at the Union Square Cafe.

MY SAY There are 8 million stories in the big city. Here, from the last century, was mine: I was a waiter and short-order cook, mostly at burger joints up and down Third Avenue, and a couple in midtown. The burgers were bad, the wine was floor cleaner, and the hours unkind, so I became a singing waiter instead — not Ellen's Stardust, but some misbegotten place downtown. Short story there: couldn't sing, got fired.

The point is, there was a TV series in all this — not a good one, and incontrovertibly a bad one, but a series nonetheless. As with “Sweetbitter,” the same narrative throughline would have applied: that cruel shallow money trench, the restaurant trade, filled with ingénues, out-of-towners, dreamers, castaways, con artists and would-be singers, along with the sordid lives they lead and the burgers they flip.

In fact, Danler had the talent, luck or common sense — probably all three — to get a job at a high-end establishment where the food is excellent and unpronounceable, and the wait staff ravishingly beautiful. And with “Sweetbitter” as evidence, the on- and off-campus after hours were even better.

But sooner rather than later, “Sweetbitter” is forced to confront the inevitable: This gets old after a while. To forestall (or defer) viewer fatigue, it goes for the atmospherics. “Sweetbitter” never becomes food porn, but it does aspire to sensory overload: “Every taste has its corresponding area on the tongue,” explains Simone, who conveys restaurant wisdom in gnomic sound bites. “That is where we taste sweet, salt is the tipping point, sour is the sting of food that's alive, bitter is poison, although we've cultivated a taste for it.”

Tess, for example, has never had an oyster, but when she finally does taste one, she has this erotic-ecstatic vision of a surging ocean and writhing naked bodies. How does it taste? she's asked. “Salty. Can I have another?”

It's probably not supposed to be a funny scene, but unquestionably is. It's not about food either, but about sex, and that's where “Sweetbitter” heads in those aforementioned after hours. Soon enough there are hookups, then self-doubt. Tess leaves behind her wide-eyed innocence, and begins to see the big city for what it really is, and her co-workers for what they are.

At the end of the day, you too can begin to see “Sweetbitter” for what it is as well — a coming-of-age story set in a prettified, or Disneyfied, Manhattan, where the food is spectacular, or spectacularly overpriced. If indeed there are 8 million stories, this one has been told before.

BOTTOM LINE “Sweetbitter” has some sensory pleasures, a good cast and better wine (or so we're told). Otherwise occasionally pretentious and ultimately superficial.   

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