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Sweetbitter is the story of Tess, a twenty-two year old woman who starts her adult life in New York City, as a backwaiter in a trendy downtown spot, a la the Union Square Cafe.
Our narrator is a naive, at times immature, physically beautiful mess, falling into a job of backwaiter at an unnamed New York City restaurant near Union Square. In the restaurant caste system, a backwaiter is barely above the Untouchable. The work is brutal and dirty. It’s a lot of hearing “Fetch me this” while responding “Yes, of course.” Hands burnt on searing hot plates. Searching the basement dregs for a precious vintage of wine. Crawling under bar sinks to battle fruit fly infestations.
And whilst fiction, the book is a great primer on food. Danler takes us through the five tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, salt, and umami) right at the start, setting up the foundations for the narrator’s education and our own. When our narrator says “you will develop a palette” she’s not just talking about taste and how to describe it to a guest. How does she categorize her experiences over the year? Can you appreciate the sweet without the bitter, the sour without the salt? Umami is used to classify foods that can be on the cusp of turning (parmesan cheese, anchovies, mold-encased dried beef), which at first serves as a warning to us to turn away from them, but they are so delicious that we eat them anyway.
Last week, Starz announced it has ordered six half-hour episodes of a scripted drama based on Danler’s Sweetbitter.
Previously announced as a development project for the network in July, Danler has written the script for the first episode. Stu Zicherman (“The Americans,” “The Affair,” “Six Degrees”) joins Danler, and both will serve as executive producers along with Plan B Entertainment. Donna Bloom will serve as producer on the six-episode freshman season. Laura Rosenthal is currently leading the ongoing casting search.
We have high hopes for Sweetbitter as a television show. Danler’s writing has an immediacy, ensuring you feel the wanting and longings of a small town girl, ready to taste the big city, especially late at night when the hoards of service employees let loose. Of course, she finds out it is both sweet and bitter. And filled with heartbreak, drugs, and good wine. We expect the talent of her writing to translate from page to screen.
With its multiple Emmy nominations, The Americans is one of the best shows on television, so having Stu Zicherman at the executive producer helm portends good things. The Americans is a show with stakes and atmosphere. It’s a show that gets so many things right including setting. I never wonder where and when we are; it’s always the early 80s Cold War. And now we can’t wait to be in the kitchens and late night haunts of the Village and Lower East Side.
Ella Purnell (Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Maleficent) has been cast in the lead role of Tess. Purnell can sink her teeth into a character that we called an “immature, beautiful mess.” She will also get to sink her teeth into lots of good food and drink as her character expands her palette. Lucky lady!
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