A new TV series ‘Sweetbitter’ explores the underground and ambiguous world of the New York restaurant scene.

The TV series ‘Sweetbitter’ explores the underground and ambiguous world of the New York restaurant scene.

Sweetbitter is a six-part series from STARZ that looks set to bring another wave of hopeful young female romantics to the Big Apple in search of themselves. Adapted by Stephanie Danler from her novel of the same name, Sweetbitter stars Ella Purnell as Tess, a 22-year-old Midwesterner who hopes to discover herself in New York City.

After finding work as a server in one of the city’s more esteemed restaurants, she becomes enveloped in the magic, the squalor and the heartbreak of pre-iPhone, pre-Recession Manhattan. Tess must navigate not only the rules of service but the rules of life, while trying to survive the excesses and deceptions of the restaurant business and her diverse gang of co-workers.

While Tess becomes attracted to the aloof and mysterious bartender Jake, it’s his sister Simone, a beautiful and authoritative head waiter and sommelier, who really intrigues her. But who can she trust, and will she be eaten alive by the hardened New York crew who drink, drug, dance, and party into the small hours after their shift is over? The waiter Will, who is training Tess, tells her “Simone is a lot of things but she’s not your friend.” And what, exactly, Simone is—and what her deal is with Jake and Tess—will keep you intrigued through all six episodes.

I asked Ella Purnell about her take on Tess and Simone’s relationship. “I don’t want to put it in black and white,” she said. “I think that this whole sensory awakening that Tess goes through touches on so many things and her sexuality is one of them. Simone knows that Tess is completely besotted and we’re not sure what it is.

Tess has this insane intrigue and attraction. I think she’s trying to figure out what she likes and who she is. And I don’t think she knows really and it’s something I’d be really interested to explore in the future.”

Simone is played by Caitlin FitzGerald, a tall and willowy blond goddess, and her physical chemistry with Ella’s Tess is striking. FitzGerald, who was a waitress right after graduating from NYU, admits that she has “had a few Simones to my Tess…they were my mentors, big sister figures, and also there was maybe jealousy, resentment, or a control element.

We’re touching on all of those.” FitzGerald’s worst waitressing accident? “Spilling an entire jug of sangria down a woman’s white cashmere coat.” A favorite recent meal in the city, in case you were wondering, were oysters at Gramercy Tavern.

Sexual and moral ambiguity is key to the series, and FitzGerald notes that “the show traffics in the sensual, so that feels like something every character is exploring and I think that Simone is a master of the sensual in her way. She’s enigmatic. She’s a Sphinx. It’s really sexy but not in a concrete black and white kind of way. I’m intrigued and slightly in love with Simone in many ways.”

Stephanie Danler’s novel was a New York Times bestseller and the series incorporates some of the book’s more poignant observations about big city life and its painful yet transformative powers. FitzGerald says that Danler, who worked in the restaurant industry for over a decade, took her to a wine bar and drank her through important wines in preparation for the role.

And while there’s definitely something queer about the character of Simone, the character of Ariel is actually a lesbian. Played by newcomer Eden Epstein, Ari is a no-nonsense waitress, womanizer, and party animal. “We get to play the gatekeepers of chaos,” says Epstein,

“so with that I think we get to test Tess, seeing what her boundaries are, what her limits are, how far she’ll go to make friends with us to see if we’ll let her in. And what’s wonderful about the arc of the season is that by the end she’s kind of tested us and we decide to let her in to our special posse of friends.”

Epstein also waited tables on her way to being a working actor and she says she relates to Ari’s character in many ways. “I think the drugs and the sex, those are the vehicles for her knowing herself and I think for Ari, it’s normalized.

If I was in a really dark space and had a really bad day and hadn’t had my coffee, I’d be pretty close to Ari. I have a lot of empathy for her and I was kind of able to live vicariously through her. If she has a bad day she has a pill, she has a drink, she smokes a cigarette, she has sex with someone. It was a joy to play someone so nuanced and excitable.”

Danler has promised to “get into Ari’s sex life much more in the second season, if there is one, because it’s rich,” says Epstein. “She’s lesbian but she’s also kind of pansexual. She leads with that and it comes from an extra confidence and also a kind of anger at the world. It’s like, ‘I can seduce anyone in this room and I’m going to hold that against you that you’re going to be seduced by me’,” says Epstein.

The series also features the character of Heather, a woman of color (played by Jasmine Mathews) who has most of her scenes with Ari in which they form a snarky chorus; and Sasha (played by Daniyar), a queer Russian immigrant struggling with his happiness and his immigration status.

Jasmine Mathews told me that she was honored to give women of color visibility in the show and says the role also “speaks to her own truth” as a minority who has herself worked in the mostly-white front-of-house of commercial restaurants where she encountered racism, often from customers. Daniyar said that he is like Sasha, several times over: he is a Tartar, which is a minority in Russia, an asylum seeker, and gay, and like Sasha, Daniyar spent years in immigration limbo struggling for his residency.

When I tell Stephanie Danler that I think the series is undeniably queer—not in a rainbow flag-waving way, but in the sense that the characters are slippery—she is pleased. In her previous life as a restaurant worker, Danler worked at Jody Williams’ Buvette in the West Village, and once sought employment at Prune, which is owned by out chef and fellow writer Gabrielle Hamilton. “I think queer is a beautiful word,” says Danler.

“I think that what I strove for with the book is something we tried to put into the show, which is dwelling in ambiguity; a lot of storytelling wants clear, definite answers about what’s good, what’s bad, who’s your friend, who’s your enemy, and that’s not real life at all. It’s very amorphous, it’s very fluid, identity is very fluid, and when you’re in the gray zone there’s something sort of sexualized and exciting and dangerous about it.”

And as for Tess and Simone, and what will happen between them, watch the series and read the book to find out. “Relationships between women are complicated and competitive and, also, they are the ones that actually shape you,” says Danler. “I think that whatever damage happens with Jake, it is the damage that happens with Simone that will make Tess who she is.”

Watch on Apple TV