Sunday, May 6, 2018

REVIEW: 'Sweetbitter' - Tess Moves to New York City and Gets a Job at Howard's Restaurant in 'Salt'

Starz's Sweetbitter - Episode 1.01 "Salt"

22-year-old Tess moves to New York City, without friends or a specific ambition. After an interview at one of the best restaurants, she's invited to train. She attempts to keep up while observing her new coworkers.

Sweetbitter tells a different coming to New York story. Typically, stories about a character packing up their lives and moving to New York are told through the context of them chasing their dreams. They have plans to go much farther in life than what the small towns they grew up in can handle. They want to make it as a singer or actor. It's a place where dreams can become realities. That has always been the context of stories like this. But that's not Tess' story. She decides to move to New York because she truly believes that she needs a huge change to her life. She can no longer just bare to live in her small rural town any more. She leaves without even saying a proper goodbye. She just packs up her things and drives to New York. She makes this change largely because she wants to live in a city where it's always packed with people and noisy. That's the kind of life she wants to be living in. She doesn't have any grand dreams or ambitions. She just wanted a change. And now, she's seeing just how chaotic life in New York can actually be. This story is bound to force a huge amount of change on Tess as a character as it goes along. This premiere shows that Tess is such a wide-eyed, naive girl who really has no sense of the world whatsoever. She is surprised to find out how expensive it is to actually live in New York. She has been used to living a certain way for so long. She made this change because she didn't want to wake up 10 years from now regretting having never explored something different. She just wants to see if she can survive with this huge amount of change in her life. It's alienating to the rest of her family who worry about her being in the big city by herself. But it's also the sole thing that seems to define Tess over the course of this premiere.

This is an interesting show largely because it treats its main character as such a blank canvas. Tess' most notable quality is that she has no personality. That could be a hard trait for someone to play. And yes, all that Ella Purnell is really asked to do here is stumble around the city and the restaurant being confused by everything that is going on. She's just absorbing everything that is happening to her. She manages to luck into so much of this new life simply because she is young and charming. Those are really her only character traits. It affords her a lot in this world upfront. She is able to easily find a place to live, a person to buy her car and a place to potentially work. Of course, none of it is as easy as she was expecting. It's actually a little surprising that her apartment doesn't turn out to be a tiny space where the bedroom and kitchen are the same room. It seems like she was able to luck into some spacial apartment. But that just means the pressure is on for her to get a job in order to pay for it. Selling her car doesn't turn out to be as lucrative as she hoped it would be. It's her saying that she's willing to stay in the city for awhile. She's leaving the past behind with no intention of returning to her small town and family any time soon. She wants to make this work. And yes, it does happen very easily for her throughout this premiere. But again, is the audience really captivated by Tess as a character because she's a blank slate? She could serve as a mirror for the viewer's own experiences taking a risk and working in the service industry. But she's also just so completely naive and overwhelmed that it's hard to feel sympathy for her even though her reactions to this new world are probably right to have at the moment.

Tess doesn't even plan on pursuing a career in the subject she majored in at college. She has an English degree but she's not reading anything right now. In fact, she left so many of her books back home because she wanted to be very specific with the items she brought to the city with her. She didn't want to be tied down to any one thing. She wanted this journey to be its own unique experience that could open her up to new possibilities in the world. Of course, it also makes for a boring interview when she applies for this job at Howard's restaurant. He is obviously a man of impeccable taste and knows the type of people who come to the city with no intentions of lasting in this job for very long. He interviews Tess and she just doesn't show a spark of personality or interest at all. She has no experience in this job whatsoever. She would have to be trained in order to do it as effectively as the rest of the staff. That could be a daunting task for the other workers to have to deal with right now. And yet, she seems to get this job because of one comment she makes. She is invited to train mostly because she compliments Howard on the wonderful job he has done in making this restaurant feel different than everywhere else she has gone today. She feels that this place is special and unique. That's clearly the moment that he sees something in her. It's such a small and not exciting moment. But it's enough to completely change Tess' life. Of course, she immediately just assumes that she has this job now and that she won't be fired even if she struggles throughout training. That's one of the instances where she's incredibly naive. But this premiere is essentially about the learning curve she is on right now.

And so, a long stretch of this episode is mostly just compromised of Tess being shown around the restaurant and meeting the rest of the staff. It's a very exposition-heavy premiere. Tess needs to be shown everything. She even has to be told that she is the one responsible for busing tables. She is given these minor responsibilities and it already seems overwhelming to her. She proves herself to be a nail bitter. She is already bitting so hard that it's causing her nails to bleed. That's a scary prospect. It also makes such an awkward first impression. Most of the staff don't believe she will make it through the training. Will is the waiter showing her around and mostly views her as an inconvenience because they have a job to do before the restaurant opens for the night. She screws up when she sits down with a senile old woman in the restaurant who immediately turns on her for no reason whatsoever. She is so unpolished and doesn't know the lay of the land just yet. Her nerves can be endearing. She wants to learn but is afraid that she is making mistakes everywhere she goes. She is already falling behind and forcing others to pick up the slack for her. And yet, she does have one friendly interaction with Sasha who is willing to help pick her up after her awkward encounter out in the restaurant. He's the one with the helpful advice for how to treat her nails and find appropriate clothes to wear after spills happen. He's dealing with heartbreak as well because he has just learned his father has died in Russia. Tess tries to help him through those emotions. But even that seems to put emotional distance between her and the rest of the world. She just doesn't know how to get into a rhythm that actually means something.

Tess is an unformed person. She has no distinct character. She has skated by in life simply though her charms. Even then, that won't take her much farther - especially now that she's in the city. She finds herself completely enamored by Simone, the server who seems to have more expertise about wine than all of the other staff. She's the one who always delivers an honest opinion. She seems to be on top of everything. She's around every corner helping Tess when it's clear that she has no idea what she's doing. She doesn't do it to form a genuine connection with Tess. Instead, it's just getting the job done so the restaurant can open for the night. She's the one who bluntly says that Tess is not a person yet. This restaurant will forge her into someone. But it's such a bitting piece of commentary that essentially boils the show down to its true essence. This is a journey for Tess. Right now, it's rough for her but still manageable. The audience can see how she continues to luck into these good positions. It's inevitable that she'll manage to get through training and become a part of this restaurant's staff. Otherwise, there simply wouldn't be a show. But the show also seems to be stating that Tess will come alive as a personality through her relationship with the mysterious worker Jake more so than her training at this job. That's a little awkward because it's once again a story about a woman changing because of a man. Right now, a little change would be good for Tess. It's what she wants for her life. And yet, the show is making such a point in saying that Jake is the only one who genuinely calms her down and makes her feel reinvigorated by the world around her. That could be potentially awkward so the show will have to tread very carefully moving forward.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Salt" was written by Stephanie Danler and directed by Richard Shepard.
  • Is there any real purpose to this show being set in 2006? It makes it feel more autobiographical. It plays as a more direct adaptation of the book it's based on. And yet, it just feels like a lame excuse to show a world that's familiar but also doesn't have the same technology as 2018. It's just not all that necessary in the slightest. It's easy to forget that though because it doesn't call too much attention to it. It's not making some larger statement about the particular time frame.
  • Simone also seems to have a personal relationship with Jake. He appears to be the only person at this restaurant she genuinely respects and is charmed by even though he's arriving much later than when he is suppose to. She helps him. Tess watches that dynamic play out from afar. Part of the appeal of her attraction to him could simply be her wishing that she had the life that Simone currently has.
  • There also has to be a mutual respect between Simone and Howard as well. She is the only one of the staff who is able to figure out that the wine he has invited them to drink actually costs $200 and isn't completely horrible. She's able to even identify the year and the specific reasons why the bottle turned out the way that it did. She sees Howard trying to trick the staff and is able to prove him wrong. It's playful while also being amusing.
  • It's fascinating how this world doesn't really stop for anyone just randomly crying in the hallway. Will is showing Tess around the kitchen. He knows that they must keep moving forward to keep things running on schedule. And yet, she is taken aback by seeing Sasha crying to himself. She genuinely wants to know how he is. But he sees that as a personal accusation at first from someone who doesn't know any better.
  • I admire Starz's commitment to half-hour dramas. In this era of Peak TV, there is more experimentation than ever before. Of course, that has also allowed drama episodes to run longer even though that extra time isn't exactly required. Keeping things around half an hour will force Sweetbitter to remain focus on what's actually important. However, that also means the story never breaks away from Tess in this premiere.