A small-town girl seeks herself and finds trouble in the big city in Starz’s ‘Sweetbitter’

Smalltown girl gets a big city education

Ella Purnell stars in “Sweetbitter,” premiering Sunday, May 6, on Starz.

Tess is a young woman eager to make her life happen. But what happens may be more than she can handle.

As played by British actress Ella Purnell (“Maleficent,” “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) in the half-hour drama series “Sweetbitter,” premiering Sunday, May 6, on Starz, she’s a 22-year-old who comes to New York City circa 2006 to make a new life away from her unsatisfying existence in her small Ohio hometown.

With no specific idea on what she wants to do or be, she drives into the city, rents a room in Brooklyn, sells her car and applies for a job as a waitress at 22 W, a chic Manhattan eatery and one of the best restaurants in town. Though she has no experience and little knowledge of food or wine, the general manager Howard (Paul Sparks, “House of Cards”) takes a liking to the perceptive young English major and hires her.

It is then that she becomes acquainted with the staff of 22 W, among them Jake (Tom Sturridge, “The Hollow Crown”), the brooding, handsome bartender to whom Tess finds herself attracted; Will (Evan Jonigkeit, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”), the backwaiter assigned to shadow Tess through her training; Sasha (Daniyar, “Scandal”), a Russian waiter eager to get his green card sponsored; Ari (Eden Epstein, “Blind”), waitress, lesbian and gossip; and Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald, “Masters of Sex”), a server with an encyclopedic knowledge of wine.

“Sweetbitter” premieres Sunday, May 6, on Starz.

Tess is immediately taken with Simone and her sophistication and authoritative bearing, and wants to be just like her, despite being warned that “Simone is not your friend.”

“She is the first person that Tess meets that she is utterly infatuated by for reasons she can’t articulate,” Purnell explains. “I think Tess meets Simone and realizes that that’s who she wants to be. She’s the epitome of grace and beauty and authority. … But there is also a really dark side of her that Tess is trying to figure out, but she’s infatuated to the point of love. It’s the first time that she sees somebody and really admires them and thinks ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s what I want to be.’ ”

As Tess acclimates to her new surroundings, the trappings of life in the food service industry – drinking, drugs and sex – present themselves, and the fresh-faced 20-something dives right in with this hard-partying crew. Danger clearly lies ahead.

“This show is about a young lady coming and developing a palate and becoming a person,” Purnell says. “And she gets a taste for everything. And I think before she comes to New York, she’s somewhat a blank slate. And I think she gets a taste for sex and love and lust and wine and food and music and poetry and so many things. It’s just one small element of what makes her her by the end.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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