Shows debuting on Starz often have the reputation of being dark, cinematic looks into some of the more undisclosed ways of life. From “Outlander” to “The Girlfriend Experience,” the network’s dramas commonly err on the side of risk and use unpredictability and suspense to their advantage. But the premiere of their latest installment, “Sweetbitter,” shows not every Starz original lives up to the same hype.
Based on the novel by Stephanie Danler, “Sweetbitter” tells the story of Tess (Ella Purnell, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”): a 22-year old Midwesterner desperate for a change of pace in her mundane, small-town life. Embarking on a journey to New York with no aspirations, a single trash bag full of clothes and a beat-up old ride, she is somehow given the gig of a lifetime working as a server at a high-end Manhattan restaurant. From then on, Tess is tasked with tackling the usual restaurant scene — full of less-than-ideal coworkers, shattering dishes and a hard-to-please, big-wig boss.
Even in the pilot episode, the plot of “Sweetbitter” is too run-of-the-mill and cliché to fit in on Starz. Coming of age stories set in Manhattan are nothing new to TV. Despite the series’s potential to set itself apart — through containing the conflict within a single setting (the restaurant) — “Sweetbitter” lacks any real moment of excitement or thrill.
One reason for that shortage of liveliness lies within the main character herself, as Tess comes off as an uber-naive, empty personality. While Purnell’s doey eyes and gentle demeanor work to embody a stereotypical Midwestern dreamer, she fails to add any spark or nuance to an already fairly spiritless role.
In fact, the lives of Tess’s rag-tag group of co-workers are more intriguing than our protagonist’s. While they are only given snippets of context and attention in the premiere, secondary characters like Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald, “Masters of Sex”), the pretentious teacher’s pet of the service crew, or Sasha (Daniyar, “Claws”), the hilariously blunt, Russian-immigrant backwaiter, steal the spotlight with their distinct characterizations.
Additionally, another major problem with “Sweetbitter” revolves around its runtime and length. Because there are only six half-hour long episodes set to make up season one, it’s inconceivable that we will reach any milestone past Tess’s first week on the job. While any longer order of episodes would drag, now we won’t see any major character evolution or surprising storylines emerge with such a short season. Perhaps this is done in an attempt to tease viewers and draw them back, but as of now it’s quite unlikely that many would stick around to see more.
From the slight cliffhanger that ends the first episode — with Tess sneaking away to the meat freezer to mingle with bad-boy bartender, Jake (Tom Sturridge, “Being Julia”) — it’s safe to assume that Tess won’t stay this innocent for too long. Given the combination of Manhattan’s crazy nightlife and the clashing personalities of the crew, there is definitely potential for drama to brew and spice to be added to the series. But after such a lackluster premiere and unconvincing introduction to Tess, “Sweetbitter” left me with an awfully bland taste.