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Finding Your Way in New York with 'Sweetbitter'
May 11, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Sweetbitter may have found a way to make the wild side of twentysomething New York life bingeable for viewers who aren’t twentysomething themselves.

The finding-yourself drama, based on Stephanie Danler’s best-selling book of the same name and airing Sundays on Starz at 8 p.m. ET, makes itself more accessible by the ironic trick of underplaying the crazy part.

Tess (Ella Purnell, top) wakes up one morning in small-town America and decides that if she doesn’t do something immediately, the next ten years of her life will disappear. She’ll be 32 – imagine that! – and still marking time, heading for 42 and 52 and dying without ever living.

So she hops in her car and heads for New York. She has a place to stay, but no contacts, no job, no friends, and very little money, all of which underscores how urgent she considers the mission.

Okay, Tess isn’t the first person to have this impulse or make that trip. Tess also isn’t the first character in recent television drama to apparently have only a first name, which is okay because no one else seems to have a last name, either.

And as long as we’re on the subject of Tess’s New York, it should be noted that at least in the first few episodes, it’s an extremely safe place. Tess walks down deserted streets late at night and never seems to encounter any hints of menace.

Things may change at some point, but at least at the outset, Tess’s New York exists in an alternate universe from Death Wish.

Getting back to Sweetbitter, Tess lands a job in a high-end restaurant, which turns out to be the best place in the city to meet people. It makes other matchmaking outfits look like they service deserted Pacific islands.

Tess’s first contact is Will (Evan Jonigkeit), whose job is training her. She also meets Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald, left and above, with Purnell), who is elegant and elusive, and Sasha (Daniyar), the resident bizarre Russian.

Jake (Tom Sturridge) tends bar. Star servers Ariel (Eden Epstein) and Heather (Jasmine Matthews) are working here while they figure out their next move, which for Heather might be law school.

Howard (Paul Sparks, below) runs the restaurant, on the “iron fist in a velvet glove” principle. Like Tess, we have no idea whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy, or whether that will ever matter.

This being a busy restaurant, various other waiters, kitchen personnel, and support staff float in and out, which helps give Tess just what she was looking for: lots of people, each carrying around a drama.

While there are also dramas in small towns, they can’t match the sheer volume Tess finds here.  

Tess tells Howard in her job interview that she doesn’t want to become a writer. She’s either lying or just hasn’t figured out the truth yet, because while Tess is diving into life, she’s also meticulously watching other people do the same.

Tess is always trying to figure out backstories and secrets. Sometimes she employs the small-town trick of just coming right out and asking. Other times she gathers information and thinks it over.

That kind of character drama, the most interesting part of Sweetbitter, soon blends into actual out-of-control, late-night twentysomething rule-smashing.

While the behavior isn’t portrayed in a particularly graphic way, it does grant Tess’s wish. Seemingly, within a few days of arriving in New York alone, she’s sucked into a maelstrom of activities that could generously be called free-spirited, and the folks back in her small town would call flat-out decadent.

Sweetbitter makes no judgments on any of it, or on Tess. As adapted for television by Stu Zicherman, with Danler’s assent, it feels more like reporting that lets the viewer figure out what it all means.

Purnell, who’s in pretty much every scene, nails Tess nicely. She also has a deadpan expression, suggesting residual small-town wonderment, that makes her a good canvas for the show’s ongoing humor.

While Tess lives in a contemporary twentysomething world, anyone who remembers that age will understand her situation. She’s rolled the dice, and she’s on her own, with no direction home.

We’d be very happy if she wins.

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