In “Sweetbitter,” created for television by Stephanie Danler from her 2016 novel of the same name, a young woman named Tess (Ella Purnell) moves to New York City seemingly for no other reason than it is not like where she comes from. (Dayton, Ohio, it transpires, which I can testify is not like New York City.)
With her Margaret Keane eyes, French pop singer bangs and smallness of stature, she is the very embodiment of innocence. (The Tess of the book has been at least a quarter of the way around the block.) Having worked in a coffee shop back home, she goes looking for restaurant work, and despite the fact that she cannot name the five noble grapes of Bordeaux winds up training in a fancy one, 22W. This takes all of two days.
Set in 2006, when an entry-level food worker could still afford to live in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; you could find a working payphone in Manhattan not too disgusting to speak into; and eating out had not quite become everyone’s idea of entertainment, the series, which premieres Sunday on Starz, is a bit like “Mozart in the Jungle” in a restaurant or “Bright Lights Big City,” with a foodie twist. For that matter, it’s like innumerable other books and movies and TV series in which a person from a small place goes off to a bigger one to find drama or comedy or herself or someone else, and where what starts as a job ends up as a family. (Yes, “Mary Tyler Moore,” I’m looking at you.)
It is also very like a high school drama but with adults.
In that high school spirit, much of the staff seem a clique of mean boys and girls, more annoying at first than interesting. So it is something of a relief (to the viewer, as to Tess) when they relax a little and let Tess into their after-hours world of drink, drugs and naughtiness and begin to treat her as something more than dead girl walking: Tess is on probation through the six-episode first season, which, with its many hanging threads, seems to want a second; it doesn’t cover the entire territory of the book, in any case, though it does head off into some territory of its own.
Being a hot heroine in a coming-of-age story, Tess is inevitably the subject of romantic attention. Naturally — that is, in the sense of things that always happen in popular fiction — she falls for the exact wrong person, brooding bartender Jake (Tom Sturridge), the Jordan Catalano of the piece, though it is mostly a matter of mooning from afar, punctuated by brief smoldering encounters she can’t quite interpret.
Danler has real New York City restaurant experience (at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe and Jody Williams’ Buvette Gastrothèque) and the series credits include individual consultants for the front of the house and the kitchen, as well as a food stylist. We can safely assume that much of what we’re seeing is food business as usual, and that what isn’t is owing to this being an unusual sort of place. (“This is not a normal restaurant,” says general manager Howard, played by Paul Sparks.) Tess’s emotional adventures may reflect Danler’s own, as well.
Secrets are teased, but very little of “Sweetbitter” comes across as satisfying drama. Purnell is appealing enough as Tess — she may be your new Alexis Bledel as Rory Gilmore. And yet her character, though we understand it is in the process of being refined — on the one hand by being knocked about like wheat on the way to becoming white flour and the other by quiet mentoring in quiet rooms — amounts to barely more than an exhalation of yearning, spiced with an occasional pratfall, hangover or kiss. Secondary characters blend into each other, like everyone on “Mad Men” less senior than Don Draper who wasn’t either Peggy or Joan.
Still, some performances stand out, notably Caitlin FitzGerald as enigmatic sommelier Simone and Daniyar as backwaiter Sasha, a Russian immigrant with green-card issues. (They are Tess’s quiet-room and after-hours mentors, respectively.) Simone is the sort of part a younger Meryl Streep might have been called for, and FitzGerald plays it with Streepian cool; Sasha is a flamboyant part that Daniyar plays big without making it unbelievable.
And the series does well with scenes full of noise and people, in the restaurant and the places the workers frequent otherwise. (Chaos is a kind of theme here.) Overlapping dialogue, as in a Robert Altman film, translates a textual quirk of Danler’s novel — little poems composed of overheard conversation — suitably to the screen.
Still, after six half-hour courses, it’s llke a meal that looks great on the plate but makes little impression on the tongue.
How was it? It was all right. Would you go again? Mmmaybe — maybe not.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd