Sweetbitter, the bestselling 2016 novel by Stephanie Danler, is being adapted into a half-hour comedy series with the first season premiering this month on Starz. The story follows a 22-year-old Ohio native named Tess as she moves to New York City with zero plan, finds herself in a backwaitressing gig at a high-profile restaurant, and slowly figures it all out with plenty of undermining coworkers along the way. Given the novel's popularity, fans may be wondering: who plays Tess on Sweetbitter? Relative newcomer Ella Purnell is a fresh face for the series.
Her film resume is significantly longer than her TV one; this will be her first ever series regular role, let alone lead. Back in 2013, she appeared alongside Chloë Grace Moretz in Kickass 2. And more recently, the British actress appeared in the 2017 film Churchill (not to be confused with Darkest Hour, the other Winston Churchill biopic from last year) as Helen Garrett, the former prime minister's secretary. She also played a teen Maleficent in the eponymous 2014 Disney film, and starred as Emma Bloom in the 2016 film adaptation of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
With Sweetbitter's heavily erotic storylines, the late-night binge-drinking, and the rampant drug use of New York City's elite restaurant scene in the mid-aughts, when the show takes takes place, the 21-year-old actress is definitely tackling a more mature project and a more provocative, grown-up role in Tess than her previous work. But given her steadily growing film career of the past eight years, she seems poised to handle it.
And given the time period in which the story takes place — 2006, mirroring when Danler herself first arrived in New York and began working at Union Square Café — the series is getting a fair share of criticism for glorifying the culture of workplace sexual harassment that's run rampant in the restaurant industry. Tess finds herself sexually involved with multiple coworkers, including a superior. In one instance, Tess trades sex with her general manager for a promotion, and critics questioned the series' timing given the rise of #MeToo at a TCA panel with the show's creators and stars. "Sex is a part of life, as is food," Purnell said in response to the criticism, according to Deadline.
Danler, who also serves as an executive producer and writer on the series, added that the story focuses on "strong women" and is about Tess' journey as she matures "into a strong woman who does not apologize, who knows how to say 'no' and is self-possessed."
Emmy-winning writer/director and Girls alum Richard Shepard has also joined the creative team as an executive producer, and it's easy to see the parallels between Lena Dunham's landmark, semi-autobiographical HBO series and this one. And the creatives behind Sweetbitter seem to have faith in Purnell's ability to carry the show similarly. As Starz President of Programming Carmi Zlotnik told Deadline:
Ella’s portfolio of work and the array of her characters and performances in her young career are truly remarkable. We are excited for fans of the book and audiences to meet Tess. We are also excited by Richard’s vision to bring the book’s richly written sensory experiences from the page to the screen.
Sweetbitter premieres the first of Season 1's six episodes on Sunday, May 6. Ultimately, it'll be up to audiences to decide if the novel's claims of empowered womanhood still ring true in our current climate, or if the story is just too dated to still make sense.
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