Sweetbitter Episode One: SALT

Hello novel2screeners! Be forewarned, some spoilers below about the first episode of Sweetbitter on STARZ.

So last week, I reviewed the book Sweetbitter (see the article here), and I really liked it, not the least of which because I too was a waitress in New York City in 2006.

Stephanie Danler, the author of the book, adapted her own material into this six-episode limited series, which was clearly a pretty monster task. An author tells a story as a novel and not a mini-series for a reason—usually that reason being that she has a lot to say, and trying to cram it all into six half-hour episodes is next to impossible.

So I don’t blame the producers of this series, one of whom is this guy named Brad Pitt, for hiring Miss Danler to do the task herself, instead of turning it over to, say, a more veteran TV writer. Clearly, they were hoping that the author of this nuanced and poetic book would find a way to transfer some of that lyricism to the screen.

So far, just going off the pilot, I’m giving her effort a solid B. I’m going to reserve judgment on whether all the character moments are going to work in the next five episodes, but I will say this: a good TV show, like a fine wine, really needs to breathe before you digest it.

And while I enjoyed the pilot of Sweetbitter, I couldn’t help but feel it had no room to breathe.

Ella Purnell as Tess

Again, I don’t think this is Miss Danler’s fault, per se. With only three hours in which to tell the whole story of the book, she almost had no choice but to rush things along. But a lot gets lost in the shuffle. The other waiters at the restaurant, for example, who are mostly indifferent to our protagonist Tess at the beginning of the book (knowing she probably won’t survive training and therefore won’t become their friend) are downright bitchy to her here, with the exception of Sasha, sassy but warm here just as he is in the novel.

Jake, the hot bartender, who remains a tantalizing enigma for the first several chapters of the book (thus whetting our appetites for more, if you’ll pardon way too many food analogies) now seems to be practically throwing himself at her, simply by virtue of moving that oyster scene up to her first day.

But the real casualty so far is Simone, the veteran waitress whose sophisticated palette and European élan are oddly intoxicating to the book’s version of Tess. So far on the show, Simone is just a condescending snob who is already coming across as a bit, well, bitter. (I know, I know, I did it again. I’m the worst.)

Caitlin Fitzgerald plays Simone, the Nurse Ratched of eating.

I was sorry to see the omission of the moment where Simone comes to the rescue of the aging Harlem dancer Miss Neely, re-firing her soup so as not to embarrass her and insisting to the other waiters that the restaurant is the only family the dementia-addled old lady has. Here, it’s Howard who performs this task, forgoing this opportunity to ingratiate us to Simone.

That said, I enjoyed the pilot in many ways. I found the lead actress, Ella Purnell, with her enormous doll eyes and Emmy Rossum voice to be charming and nuanced, and the world of the restaurant itself is a promising milieu for the action yet to come.

This episode was, after all, just an amuse bouche for the real meat of the story. (Okay, I’ll stop, I’ll stop. Jeesh.)

Till next week,


Photos courtesy of Plan B Entertainment and STARZ

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