The Starz series Sweetbitter, based on Stephanie Danler’s novel, was much maligned in its short first season. Some felt it was a standard coming-of-age in New York story that didn’t do enough to shake up the genre, or that it didn’t do the beloved book justice, or that it was too focused on the privilege of the fine dinning culture in which it resides. But, rather thankfully for those of us who did enjoy its inaugural episodes, it’s back. Sweetbitter is a slight show in many ways, the kind of perfect summer watch that makes you quasi-nostalgic for your own coming-of-age experiences: young love in a big city, being the new kid at a job, and being open to the experiences that will come to shape your adulthood. In that regard, Sweetbitter succeeds greatly, quietly exploring restaurant life—and the life of a young person making big moves and big mistakes—with the flitting charm and randomness that so closely defines these kinds of encounters.
In Season Two, Tess (Ella Purnell) is no longer just the wide-eyed ingenue she started off as, but she is still naive and full of wonder at things her jaded co-workers find to be pedestrian. The restaurant’s manager, Howard (an excellent Paul Sparks, but when is he not?), tells her that he appreciates her curiosity, and the camera does often find itself lingering on Tess looking at people and things with a fixated wonder as she takes everything in. In the first episode, that includes the killing and gutting of a pig, something Howard hopes will “wake up” his dead-eyed staff and make them more deeply consider the origins of the food they are selling and serving.
Working at a fine dining restaurant, in Sweetbitter, is all about the connection between food and life. The experience of preparing the food, serving it, knowing about and indulging in wine, tasting a rare ingredient for the first time or modernizing a classic dish are all connected to the politics, spats and drama that the employees engage in. These personal encounters are augmented and fueled by the menu and drinks list, or perhaps it’s the opposite. When Tess tastes a white truffle for the first time, it comes on the heels of her co-workers all talking about the garnish in sexualized terms. And true to the description, after Will (Evan Jonigkeit) serves Tess some truffle on toast as a gift, she watches him charm some guests before pulling him into a coat closet and kissing him. The encounter is warm and familiar, but later (after Tess has brushed her teeth and can no longer taste the truffle itself) it changes to cold and awkward.
That is because, as viewers of the first season will know, Tess believes she’s really in love with moody bartender Jake (Tom Sturridge), who has a complicated relationship with another co-worker, Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald). The show backs away somewhat from their twisted mother/son or friend/lover dynamic until late in this eight-episode season (the entirety of which was available to review), but it’s an ever-present tension that keeps Jake at a distance from Tess. One of the most changeable frenemy dynamics of the first season between Tess and Simone also seems resolved for most of this season, until the end when it suddenly comes down to sexual dominance between the two of them, an inversion of a Season One plot. But it also puts Tess more in line with Will, whose management-track change has him wondering if he’s comfortable with having power over others. It’s clear, rather suddenly, that she certainly is; where that will lead for Tess and a potential Season Three given those final moments is less certain (and does not, for what it’s worth, make for a satisfying series finale).
The biggest issue, though, is that Jake never makes himself much of a character worth fighting over. As far as TV bad boys go, he’s exceptionally dull. Selfish, mopey, impulsive and distant can work as long as there’s also charm and some kind of dynamic portrayal, but when compared to the complicated Howard and the personally conflicted Will, Jake does not measure up. To be fair, after two seasons, we don’t know much about any of these characters aside from superficial traits and occasional exposition, as plots are explored briefly and dropped again. Things change, or don’t, and life goes on.
Where the show does a much better job is in its portrayal of the connections within the microcosm of the restaurant, one that completely runs the lives of those who are a part of it. It’s all funny, emotional, warm and quickly forgotten in turn. Throughout the new season, each character is faced with not only the challenge of what they want now and in their near future, but coming to terms with the fact that they may never get there. For those like Simone and Howard, it’s all they have—something they recognize and accept (“where would we go?”). For others it’s a means to an end, especially the low-level dishwashers to whom Howard throws a bone, upsetting the delicate balance of who gets to share in tip-outs. There’s a feeling of family here, and yet, some of the characters also acknowledge that it’s all temporary and meant to be so. They won’t stay there forever, and when they move on, they won’t keep in touch with the people they’re so close to now. That’s part of the specificity of this time and place; it can feel so all-important and all-encompassing in the moment, but ultimately it’s as ephemeral as the first taste of white truffle.
Sweetbitter Season Two premieres Sunday, July 14th on Starz.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV