I found a bone in my salmon, and it’s very much a bone I would like to pick with Starz for cancelling Sweetbitter. It’s probably a show you’ve never heard of—I find Starz series often fall below the radar in peak TV times, save for maybe Outlander. (Vida is another often-overlooked Starz series you should go check out!) And perhaps it’s that below-the-radar status that failed to make a star of Sweetbitter—a half-hour drama following 22-year-old Tess (Ella Purnell) as she moves to New York City in 2006 and lands a job in a fancy restaurant.
Yes, the moving to New York City storyline at the ripe old age of 22 has been done before–and admittedly been done better than Sweetbitter–but the real reason to watch this show is its depiction of the restaurant setting. It’s not overly interested in why Tess left Ohio, it’s not too concerned with characterization, and these choices leave room for restaurant drama and the gradual development of characters and motivations. This is, of course, a blessing and a curse for this show because, well, it got cancelled without getting to plate its flaming entrée. I’m not saying it had the slow burn character work of a show like The Americans or anything, but Sweetbitter very much came into its own in the second season and it’s a crying-into-your-Domaine Leroy-wine shame that it got cancelled.
Tess-ting My Patience
Full disclosure, I happened upon this show (based upon the novel of the same name by Stephanie Danler) about a somewhat wide-eyed 22-year-old moving to New York City shortly after I, also a somewhat wide-eyed 23-year-old decided to move to New York City, so I do have a bias but it’s one of those sweet-place-in-my-heart biases, so it’s fine, right? I devoured the show’s first season in one sitting.
It’s six half-hour/bite-sized morsels that go down easy, but don’t quite leave much of an impression. Knowing so little about Tess is fine in the short-term, but to have her central tension reduced down to a vague love triangle with Will (Evan Jonigkeit) and Jake (Tom Sturridge) by the end of the season feels like attention somewhat misplaced. And it also made Tess seem frantic and uncalculated, which I don’t think she is.
I’m not so much interested in her past before New York, I am mostly interested in her character journey. One could argue the central tension for Tess at the end of the first season is if she will actually pass her trails and get hired, but that has less to do with her character development so much as it has to do with what the other characters think of her work-based talents.
There’s a very meta line in Season 1 which is delivered from the ice queen-esque, enigmatic Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) to Tess which is something along the lines of “you’ve gotten by on your charm for so long that you’ve failed to develop any character,” which is really how I feel about Season 1. It’s charming, frothy, clumsy, and a little too concerned with Tess’s love life—all much like Tess herself in the first season. However, Sweetbitter comes into its own in Season 2, much like Tess. What’s perhaps unexpected, though, is that it does this by treating the show as an ensemble piece instead of a character one. Tess, although still the protagonist, is no longer the center of every scene.
The Power Players: Howard and Simone
Perhaps the most enigmatic characters of Sweetbitter are quietly terrifying manager Howard (Paul Sparks) and over-experienced server Simone. Both serve as a sort of mentor for Tess in some way, but also a softly antagonistic force for her. Howard never overtly does anything to rock the ship for Tess, but the choices he makes as manager eventually trickle down to backwaiter Tess. Simone, on the other hand, takes Tess under her wing (even calling her “little one” in the first season) but disciplines her when she interrupts their power dynamic.
Simone is a sort of keeper for curmudgeonly bartender Jake and has been since they grew up in The Cape together where Jake’s mother died by suicide. She picks him up and cares for him like family, and yet also disciplines him like a parent. Similarly to her dynamic with Tess, if her power dynamic is interrupted or challenged, she is swift to act. For much of the second season (and all of the first season) we see Simone through Tess’s gaze—that is, until Season 2 Episode 6 in which we see some scenes with Simone’s gaze. For as tough as her exterior is, Simone has a somewhat tragic backstory of a complicated divorce where business mixed with pleasure mixed with…champagne? It’s all very Simone: she lived in France at some point, married a man named Etienne, and also was once a writer who wrote buzzworthy short stories.
In the second season, Simone also tries to put manager Howard in his place when he tries to interrupt the status quo of the restaurant. She secretly calls the restaurant’s owner, Maddie Glover (the great Sandra Bernhard), after some of Howard’s more outlandish antics (see: making staff watch a pig bleed out) and coyly humiliates Howard about his secret(ish) relationship with a hostess he fired.
If the first season of Sweetbitter was about orientation (to a new space, people, and existing dynamics), the second season was about the power of execution. Watching a pig bleed out is not something Season 1 would’ve shown because it was more about knowing that the pig existed and where it existed. It’s a brilliant metaphor for the second season: it’s unexpected, somewhat gratuitous, and shows the power of execution (literally, in this case). And now that Tess knows the space, she can execute a vision and start to establish her dominance in the space taken up by Howard and Simone.
The Side Dishes: Will, Sasha, Jake, Ari, and Heather
As I said, Season 2 of Sweetbitter becomes an ensemble piece of sorts and dives deeper into the emotions and motivations behind Will, Sasha, Jake, Ari, and Heather (some more than others but that’s expected).
In the true background are Ari and Heather. Ari (Eden Epstein) is always first to the dance floor and first to pull out the coke. She breaks down close to the end of the second season as people’s eventual plans to move on gradually come to light. We learn through watercooler talk that she lives alone in a brownstone and that her parents abandoned her for London and still pay for her nanny. No longer just the queer side bitch of Season 1, this infusion of complexity was interesting and was surely part of a grander plan for the character. Not only that, but near the end of Season 2, there’s a small exchange in which Simone asks her for drugs and blackmails her when she gives her a hard time. Apparently Ari hasn’t even cashed a paycheck in close to a year. What’s up with that?
Heather (Jasmine Mathews) kind of just exists in the first season, but in the second season, she has more of a story. She went to Georgetown, dropped out of law school, and her blackness is always called into question. Granted, it’s also a textbook example of lampshading to base a character’s development on their blackness alone and to interrogate their placement as the token black person in the waitstaff…without also really interrogating that they’re the only black person in the main cast. With all that being said, I like to think a third season would’ve given the writers more space to explore Heather’s perspective and to flesh her character out with some much-needed nuance.
Our Cape Cod boy Jake kind of feels like an asshole bartender for most of the series. He’s slightly more fleshed out when his dreams of opening a different kind of restaurant with Scott (Jimmy Saito—who never really got a chance to flesh out his character) come to light. That, and his tragic backstory where his mother walked into the ocean and never came back. Besides that, he kind of just exists for Tess to grapple with in her “I should want Will, but I want Jake” storyline. (Yes, she actually says that line…sigh.) All that being said, watching English actors Tom Sturridge and Ella Purnell play naïve Americans so well is just fun TV, and a third season really could’ve given something more to Jake. What that is I’m not particularly sure, but I feel like a third season of Sweetbitter could’ve seen him flip a table or something. He’s got anger that’s just been bubbling up that wasn’t ever really addressed.
On the other side of the love triangle is Will, a steady, polite boy who one day “will make some girl from the Midwest really happy.” He’s constantly mocked for his demeanour but is also charming without being intimidating. In perhaps one of the weirder subplots of Season 2, he is asked by two regular customers to go home with them and masturbate for them in their living room while they watch. In exchange, he gets $5,000. News of this proposition travels fast with everyone expecting him to turn it down. In a surprising turn, though, Will shows up and does the deed. More surprising, though, is his choice to lie about doing it. Will clings to people’s idea of him, but also has this shadowy side of him that craves power, which becomes conflicted with his new manager-in-training status in the second season. It brings this power-hungry, manipulative side of him to light which Howard then capitalizes on. What a fun plot that would’ve been to see fully fleshed out. Sorry, Will!
Sasha (Daniyar), though, is by far my favourite supporting character—and maybe that of the writers, too. The coiner of the “baby monster” nickname for Tess, he also serves as a warm and feisty presence for the restaurant. Not without his bad days, he is also terribly self-destructive and regularly self-medicates, sabotages positive relationships in his life, and—at the end of Season 1—even attempts to take his own life. A Russian immigrant whose green card expires, Sasha’s character does a decent job of building a case for when the system is stacked against someone, but he also exists outside of the tragic and there is some room for nuance given to his character. With all that being said, Sasha is never really given space to act on his sexuality in the show’s two seasons, and I was hoping a third season could go beyond the heteronormative gaze of sex scenes presented in Sweetbitter.
Sweetbitter was never going to win a Peabody or anything, but it still deserved better than it got (if for nothing else than its excellent recalibration in its second season). It took a deeper look at power and identity politics in the space of hospitality and started to chip away at the illusion of glamour that the restaurant (which is never overtly named) poised itself on. It’s hard to imagine what a third season would look like with, y’know, a pandemic changing the way dining looks, but I think that could have also been a really interesting thing to navigate in the third season.
Beyond that, though, I was excited for the fireworks of Tess’s devious plan. The last thing we’re greeted with—between sips of scotch with Howard—is Tess telling him to fire Simone. It would’ve pulled the tablecloth fresh off of the table, and really shaken up the comfort of well, everyone, and would’ve made for a real firecracker of a season, if for nothing else than to watch Ella Purnell and the masterful Caitlin FitzGerald spar verbally.
Instead what we’re left with is a tale of multiple people deepening a connection with themselves in order to gain more agency in their personal and work lives. That sounds a bit dry, but that’s kind of what Sweetbitter is at its core when you strip away the glamour of the dry-aged strip steaks and orchids. That being said, it’s a heck of a lot more complex than what Season 1 gave us thanks to the diversification of perspectives. And maybe it’s this much-needed variation in perspective that made Season 2 so satisfying, and all the more disappointing when its surprising cliffhanger became the final note left on the palate.