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Starz's 'Sweetbitter' is an introduction to life's flavors

Starz's 'Sweetbitter' is an introduction to life's flavors
Stephanie Danler is the author of "Sweetbitter," a coming-of-age novel about a young woman who starts working at a popular New York restaurant that has been made into a Starz show. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

A young doe-eyed brunet sits expectantly at the table of an upscale restaurant, enthralled by its pink hues, pristine condition and white orchids. She is being interviewed by the eatery's owner for a server position, but the talk is filled with awkward silences.

"You've got really nice nails," she tells the owner at one point. Trying to connect with her, he asks what she wants to be. A writer? An actress? The young woman shakes her head and replies: "I don't know."

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Newly arrived from Dayton, Ohio, with no professional job experience, the MapQuest-equipped Tess has spent the day submitting resumés and interviewing at several restaurants. Although Tess is competing against several more experienced hopefuls at her final stop, she gets the job, charming the owner with a smile and a compliment.

The first episode of Starz's "Sweetbitter," which premiered May 6, is the prelude to a familiar story — small town girl moves to the Big Apple in search of something greater than herself.

But Stephanie Danler, 34, author of the same-named novel that inspired the series, said it's rare to see a coming-of-age story about a young female character who is so inexperienced and her past so uneventful that she has no concrete idea of she wants out of life.

That is a very real experience for young women that rarely shows up on-screen, said Danler, who has run restaurants in the past and is now executive producer of "Sweetbitter."

"Managing restaurants for so long, I hired many women who came to New York without a specific goal, but full of ambition, which I feel like is the most common state," she said. "We just want to be something and you think that the city will turn you into it."

The series stars Ella Purnell ("Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children") as Tess, who dips her toes into a world of hedonism for the first time and immediately becomes entangled in complicated relationships with Will (Evan Jonigkeit), a kind and experienced back-waiter; Jake (Tom Sturridge), her brooding love interest; and Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), a slightly condescending mentor figure.

The series takes place in 2006, a year before the smartphone came out, to capture a world of desperate loneliness, Danler said.

Danler's novel is based on her experience moving to New York at age 22 and working at Union Square Cafe while she waited for her big break as a novelist. The book was a bestseller in 2016, catching the attention of her now co-executive producer and showrunner, Stuart Zicherman ("The Americans"), and director Richard Shepard ("Girls").

And though the series focuses on young women starting their adult lives, Danler and her team saw potential in exploring the lives of the band of misfits that work at the restaurant, as well as the complicated dynamics of that industry.

"I love the whole notion of a restaurant where, in the back of house, you've got immigrants and people making $4 an hour washing dishes, and you go through those double doors, and all of a sudden there's people buying a $1,200 bottle of wine," Shepard said at a recent event promoting the show. "I thought it's such a great platform for telling any kind of story."

The racial divide between those serving customers and employees in more menial jobs such as cleaning and washing dishes is very distinct, reflecting the dynamics of New York restaurants in 2006. As a server, Tess maneuvers between the more relaxed dining area and the chaos of the kitchen.

During work hours, the staff teaches Tess how to hold three plates in one arm and charm guests. But after hours, they seduce her into a lifestyle flavored by sex, drugs and manipulation.

"Historically, restaurants have been like the Wild West a little bit," Danler said. "They don't really have human resources departments, you don't have health benefits, people are paid under the table and there was really no health inspector, or he was a guy you paid in the back alley."

Reviews of "Sweetbitter" have been mixed. Some critics have praised the series' concept and performances by Purnell and Daniyar, who play Sasha, a gay Russian immigrant struggling to get his green card.

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"The series does well with scenes full of noise and people, in the restaurant and the places the workers frequent otherwise," writes Los Angeles Times critic Robert Lloyd. "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."

Others say "Sweetbitter" lacks boldness and meaningful insight into the lack of diversity and the presence of sexual harassment.

"There's a lot of missed opportunity here, like how the diversity of restaurants is only slightly touched upon even though it provides a perfect setting to dig into undocumented workers and their hardships," Variety critic Pilot Viruet writes. "And in this era where television is clamoring to bend itself to fit in with the Me Too movement, it feels odd that 'Sweetbitter,' which certainly features its share of sex between employees, ignores it completely."

Zicherman said the first season does plant seeds that will allow them to further explore the upstairs, downstairs nature of the restaurant world.

"We didn't have much space to do it, but we accurately reflected the way a restaurant like this existed in 2006," he said. "We're just touching on them [these issues] now."

Danler contends that if the show is renewed, she hopes to move beyond Tess and explore the other characters more fully, such as Sasha and his struggle to get a green card. She would also like to showcase Santos, the dishwasher, in an all-Spanish episode.

The cast and extras went to restaurant boot camp for two weeks. There, they learned about proper culinary techniques and bartending, and the set featured a working kitchen, with real flames. Danler was adamant about inserting small mementos that would thrill her novel's fans and culinary connoisseurs, like the color of the chairs that perfectly match her book's hardcover and one rare bottle of wine in each episode.

"The prop guys wanted to kill me," Danler joked. "They'd be like, 'There's three of them in New York,' and I'd be like 'Yep, I need it!' One wine geek is going to notice it and they're going to be like 'Whoa, this is the real deal.'"

There are scenes in each episode that will resonate with fans of the novel. The "family meal" scene, for instance, in which restaurant staffers gather around a large table for a meal and we see their personalities working together for the first time, and a scene in which Jake introduces Tess to oysters in a dark pantry, to which she responds, "Can I have another?"

Tess has consistently been described as naive, but Purnell sees her a little differently — a young woman who can stand up for herself but remains observant as she fills in her blank canvas.

"Yes she's new to the world, but she's not innocent," the British actress said. "She has a backbone."

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Danler said that because "Sweetbitter" is based on her experience, many have tried to equate her with Tess. In reality, she doesn't have much in common with her heroine. At age 22, she was dedicated to becoming a novelist.

Like Tess, Purnell, 21, is entering adulthood and experiencing New York for the first time.

"She was me and I am her," Purnell said. "For the first time in her life, she's actually becoming a person. She wants to be someone and make something."

Danler, who said she relates more to Simone, does — however — know a thing or two about the sense of recklessness that comes with being 22.

"When you are beginning to develop a palate, you want to experience the broadest array of flavors, and that flavor translates to experiences," she said. "You want the highs and the lows, the dirty and the ugly. And I think that the refinement of a palate is learning what you like and don't like, and being able to select the things you like."'

When she began her journey, touring the country for her book, Danler said she didn't know what to tell the young women who asked for advice. After working with a 21-year-old so closely on the set of "Sweetbitter," she thinks she has a better answer: Be gentle with yourself.

After all, life brings heartbreak. Talking about the origin of "sweet bitter," Danler noted how the Greek word is different.

"The order in Greek is actually sweet bitter, which is also the order that we experience love," she said. "First the sweet and then the bitter."

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'Sweetbitter'

Where: Starz

When: 8 p.m. Sundays

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Twitter: @r_valejandra

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