The series premiere of Sweetbitter hits Starz this month and the half-hour comedy based on Stephanie Danler's food novel of the same name has some impressive star power behind it. Masters of Sex alum Caitlin Fitzgerald plays Simone, the powerful but aging career server, and prestige drama powerhouse Paul Sparks, who enjoyed recent turns on House of Cards, The Night Of, and The Crown, plays restaurant general manager Howard. But newcomers to the story may be wondering: is Sweetbitter based on a true story? According to Danler, yes and no.
The book follows a 22-year-old woman named Tess as she picks up her life and moves from Ohio to New York with no plan, eventually stumbling into a backwaitressing job at a well-regarded New York City restaurant. She has no idea what she's doing, of course, but finds her way (and herself), no thanks to a cast of characters including a cute but destructive bartender, a condescending queen bee, and a predatory general manager. Danler wrote the novel over a period of seven years while waitressing at Danny Meyers' renowned Union Square Café and earning her MFA at The New School. She says the book is loosely based on her experiences there, however, as Danler told NPR when the book first came out, "[Tess] quickly became a character, and is in many ways much better and much worse at life than I was at that age."
The novel was first published in 2016 after Danler managed to get her manuscript seen by a publisher and subsequently signed a six-figure contract. One of Sweetbitter's hallmarks was Tess' lack of backstory, a narrative choice Danler says was driven by the hope that lots of New York City transplants would see themselves in her. "I wanted Tess to reflect the New York experience for a lot of people — you arrive and you’re straight into this bubble, and all that matters is the bubble," she told The Paris Review in an interview. "Your past falls away. It doesn’t matter. You’ve started again."
And although most readers assume Tess is modeled after Danler, they actually didn't share the same career trajectories. "Tess was never me, not really. I hostessed at restaurants when I was fifteen years old and managed restaurants in my late twenties," Danler said in the interview. "Tess would never have gotten a job at the Union Square Café, where I worked. But, of course, she’s also like me in some ways."
Starz has adapted the novel into a six-episode first season, on which Danler serves as a writer and executive producer. Starz CEO Chris Albrecht told Deadline he was eager to jump on the project and order the series when he heard Danler had adapted it into a pilot because of how popular the book was with a younger female demographic.
"It’s a book that several of the women at Starz had read and were excited about," he said. "When we heard it may be a project, I literally had some of my colleagues come and say this is one we’ve got to get; it plays into young female demographic but as we know women of all ages will certainly be attracted to great stories."
Sweetbitter premieres on Starz alongside Vida — another, queer-forward half-hour comedy following two Mexican-American sisters battling gentrification in Los Angeles — for a complicated, messy girl power slate that hopefully resonates with audiences. You can catch the first episode of Sweetbitter on Starz this Sunday, May 6.
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