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A Refreshing Look at Starting Out in New York on 'Sweetbitter'
July 14, 2019  | By David Hinckley

Meet the new Tess, not the same as the old Tess. 

Tess (Ella Purnell, top) arrived in New York last year in the Starz drama Sweetbitter. Fresh from a small flyover town, she didn't exactly conquer the city on her first shot. She did, however, land a job in an upscale restaurant, which became the epicenter for an eye-opening orientation that she survived. 

With Sweetbitter starting its second season Sunday, 9 p.m. ET, Tess still doesn't rule. But this is a much different Tess than the one we first met, and that helps ensure that Sweetbitter remains one of the most intriguing shows on television. 

To the casual viewer, Sweetbitter might seem like a soap opera on steroids, with its intense focus on the screwed-up, drama-drenched lives of the dozen or so people who work with Tess at the restaurant. 

Howard (Paul Sparks), the restaurant boss, is reminiscent of plantation overseers. Like virtually every character on Sweetbitter, he sounds the same whether he's honest and understanding or evasive and devious. 

Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald, left) plays the restaurant's favored child, the glamorous and shrewd woman who seems to wield disproportionate influence. She has tried to publicly friend Tess while behind the scenes not always acting as her advocate.

Maybe it's a sign of progress that evasion and deceit are treated here as gender-neutral. 

We have handsome Jake (Tom Sturridge, below) and crazy Sasha (Daniyar) and a raft of others, most of whom are dealing with some crisis in their lives. Or love lives. Or both. 

Collectively they create more drama than Britain's Brexit crisis, and that backdrop quickly shows us how far Tess has traveled in not much more than a month of restaurant time. 

She spent last season on the defensive, speaking mostly to explain herself or fend off insults. This year she feels like she's graduated. She's no longer the new kid. While she keeps her past life guarded, she'll talks to almost anybody about almost anything else, often volunteering her help or opinion before it's solicited. 

At the same time, we do get a few trickles of data on her backstory, beyond the fact she drove alone to New York from the Midwest for the specific purpose of having an adventure that turned out to be the restaurant gig. 

Tess sometimes complains about the job, as does almost everyone else. She likes it, though, because as she feels more secure, she also starts to feel like she won't just be waiting tables forever. She's learning next-level skills, like how to detect the subtle differences among wines of the same grape. 

What we do know about Tess's pre-Sweetbitter life suggests it wasn't rosy.  

Still, she's not just the latest plucky young person who breaks out of her small-town prison in search of a more adventurous life. She is that person to some extent, and the fact she's traveling with no roadmap makes us like her and root for her. 

At the same time, she's not consistently endearing. She can be abrasive and exasperating, which Sweetbitter suggests is an inherent and inevitable side of being human. 

To the extent that an expensive New York restaurant can become a microcosm for the whole human condition, Sweetbitter paints us as a relentlessly imperfect species. Tess and the crew became relatable precisely because they aren't always nice or even well-intended. 

Like Mozart in the Cityand The Unbreakable Kimmy SchmidtSweetbitter doesn't make New York look easy. In some ways, it's the classic high-pressure big city from which characters in every Hallmark movie must flee to find love and true happiness. 

But here the city's toughness isn't an assault on the soul. It's a challenge because it puts that dark side of human nature out front and dares all the Tesses to punch through and pursue their dreams anyway.

Moving into Season 2, Sweetbitter continues to rise above its sudsy side. We like that Tess and her sometimes annoying colleagues and friends have stuck it out, finding strength in camaraderie and turning New York into what its defenders have always insisted it really is: thousands of small towns constantly coming together and then morphing. 

We've seen that New York through many sets of eyes over the years, from The Godfather to Sex and the City. As we watch Tess spread her wings despite the cautions all around her, her view feels fresh. 

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