Sweetbitter is just as the misnomer suggests, a bittersweet show. Part slow burner erotic drama, part No Reservations, the series is based on Stephanie Darnier’s novel of the same name. Starz, not unlike the show, is also a new network that is forming its own identity, particularly after earlier success of the similar The Girlfriend Experience. The first season of the show was slow and moody, with a naïve Tess (Ella Purnell) at the heart of the show, set back in the 2000s that played off some nostalgia but felt like it has been left on the Twilight cutting room floor at times.
Thus I am happy to report that in season two Sweetbitter does what few shows do successfully, and that’s craft a sophomore season with more engaging characters, more spicy moments and generally, more. Tess is back, having grown past her naivety. We don’t see her make the same mistakes this season and the show matures past the coming of age story it leaned too heavily on. Now Tess is well equipped to deal with the drama, but begins to become as strategic as the people around her. Jake (Tom Sturridge) and Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) are still in Tess’ life, the former with whom she still has a crush on and the latter her inspiration, but now her growth has her on a level playing field. She reads them both a lot better and her growth sees her seeking out more answers on their fraught relationship. There’s conflict that arises with Simone that, even if not 100% explained, is still engaging to watch. The student has become the master and Tess has learnt well.
Returning as well as Tess’ main friends from the restaurant floor: Ari, Sasha and Heather finally step into the spotlight and no longer only as conduits in Tess’ life. Sasha is still as earnest as before and his emotional rollercoaster is portrayed well. Learning more about Ari and Heather, and what makes them tick, creates a better world of the restaurant and becomes part of Tess’ awareness of other people’s problems and personalities. Restaurant manager Howard (Paul Sparks) also has a metamorphosis, as his own future comes into jeopardy and his tight relationship with Simone begins to crumble. He still holds himself at arm’s length, but his methods for manipulating the staff becomes more apparent, even as he gets Will (Evan Jonigkeit) to become his protégé to do his bidding for him. It’s interesting to see this dynamic as well as how Will slowly becomes more like Howard in how they abuse their power.
Real problems also begin to come into play as a dishwasher goes to Howard asking for a change in the way tips are distributed that sparks a battle between the chefs, servers and kitchen staff. It’s a genuine issue in many American restaurants that finally gets put center stage here. And Sweetbitter shockingly explores the controversy with delicacy and presents all sides of the issue. Then there’s the comedy, with the presentation of the first white truffle in the restaurant and the ensuing pomp from this arrival, while Tess dares to taste the rare delicacy without being caught.
The growth of characters isn’t the only change, as the first season’s swirling wine opening is replaced with a montage of cooking food that changes every episode. This reflects the growth in the show as well, as it moves to equally be about the art of cooking and hospitality than just the drama on the floor itself. And the show ends with a shocking moment with Tess that really shows how far she’s come and the changes power dynamic that could shake up the restaurant.
Season two has been a massive improvement on season one and fortunately it has moved past its teething issues. The next season (if there is one) hangs on how the writers will continue after the final moment of this season, and what they will choose next for the characters. But I am sure, despite that, that the drama will continue in the next Sweetbitter.
Ella Purnell is very good in the role and you can tell her mannerisms have changed as she expresses the new person Tess is. The growing of the Sweetbitter-world is also welcome, as is the development of supporting characters. The cliffhanger finale leaves a nicer taste in your mouth more than last seasons did.
It’s still overly moody, dark and annoyingly similar to The Girlfriend Experience in a lot of ways. It’s not exactly prestige television and is probably better suited to a Twilight fan who lives off the slow pauses and long stares between characters.
Originally published on Back Row, 20 October, 2019.